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 22: The Dark
 
 
 

     The crazy laughing guy's sign seemed to sum the situation up
nicely.  He was wearing a sandwich board style sign, something I don't
think I'd ever seen outside of a movie.
     THE GODS HAVE FORSAKEN US! the front declared in big,
sloppy red letters.  The back, though, the back really cut to the crux of
things.
     THE END, it declared in that same crazy, all-caps red paint, IS
NIGH.
     Yeah.  No freaking kidding.
     "Hey, buddy!" I shouted.  "You may wanna not stand there!"
     "These are the end times!" Crazy Laughing Guy informed me
with the sort of dangerous good cheer that only really crazy people seem
able to carry off.
     "Seriously!" I shot back as I tried to watch the looney and the
monster at the same time.  "How do you feel about the other side of the
street?  The end could be nigh over there ..."
     Crazy Laughing Guy brayed as though that was the funniest
thing he had heard in his many, apparently very colourful, years.  The
beast took that as a signal that now would be a good time to charge, and
once again I found myself staring down the maw of an enraged creature
bigger than a city bus.
     This was one of the new ones, the critters that nobody had seen
until our very recent problems.  The locals had quickly learned that the
scales on these things didn't just shimmer with a faint rainbow effect; they
were also nearly impervious to magickal attack.
     Fortunately, I had also quickly learned that they afforded no
particular protection against chi attacks.  Score one for the martial artists
of the world, boo-ya.  I felt my chi swirl and pool, gathering it as the
long-necked wonder bore down on me with the sort of single-mindedness
that I'd come to associate with these things.  They were ugly and hard to
kill, but man, when they got you in their sights they damn well stayed
focussed.
     It was less than twenty feet away when I unloaded my chi attack,
hitting the thing square on with everything I had.  Its alarmed screech
was music to my ears as my blast hammered it, stopping it dead in its
tracks for a moment before throwing it back the way it had come.  Its
bulk actually rolled several times before coming to rest in an untidy heap
in the middle of the roadway, and after a few seconds I was sure it wasn't
getting back up.
     I'd become something of an expert in the past few days.
     "Nice shooting," came a voice from behind and above.  I glanced
back, brushing dark strands of hair out of my face.
     "Thanks, V.  How'd you do?"
     "Kicked ass," she told me, leaping off the traffic light and landing
neatly beside me.  "As usual.  Have you seen ... hey, nice sign!"
     "Death comes for all.  ALL!" Crazy Laughing Guy informed her
from his garbage-strewn doorway.  Then he started cackling again.
     "Crazy Laughing Guy, V.  V, Crazy Laughing Guy."
     "Nice to meet you," V said politely.  He found that positively
hilarious.  That was Crazy Laughing Guy for you, he always found the
humour in any situation.  At least, he had in the three minutes or so that
we'd been acquainted.
     "Show her the other side!" I called, then turned to V.  "You'll
love this."
     "Despair, fools!  All is lost!" CLG announced, turning
obediently.  V read the back of the sign and started to laugh.  CLG joined
in, delighted to find a kindred spirit.
     "Oh, man," V gasped, wiping at her eyes.  "I've never seen an
actual "The end is nigh"sign before!"
     "He was probably saving it for a special occasion," I told her.
     "Well, he found one.  This is about as nigh as it gets.  Come on, let's
make like a baby and head out."
     Running across the broken pavement, she jumped back up to the
dead traffic signal, then hopped up to a nearby roof and jumped the gap
to the next building, racing up a rickety old fire-escape.
     "Take care, Crazy," I said.  After all we'd been through, I figured
we were on a first name basis.
     "She is coming!  Coming for us ALL!  ALLLLLLL!"
     Yeah?  Well, she sure was taking her damned time.  Two quick
jumps and I was springing up the fire escape towards the higher rooftop.
It had seen better days, but it held my weight, though not without
complaint.  At the top I saw V standing at the far edge, the reddish light
of the moon catching glossy highlights in her black leather.  I joined her
at the edge and together we stared out into the night.
     Plumes of smoke rose in several locations, marking the worst of
the current fighting.  I could see that big tower, the Royal Financial
Centre, off in the distance, looking like a fighter with all his teeth
knocked out.  After the police and military had finished their assault,
every damned window in the place had been smashed.  Still, they'd held
off the swarm of monsters long enough to evacuate all the survivors from
the roof, and that had been no small feat.
     Sirens floated through the air some distance away, gunshots
rattled hollowly from another direction.  Three police fliers streaked
through the sky near where the palace had once stood, chasing something
big, and I saw streaks of light as they opened fire.  North of us, something
was on fire, and nobody seemed to be having any luck putting it out.  The
water lines might be cut; city services were hit and miss in some areas.
Somewhere off to our left, a high pitched whine fell in pitch and volume,
ending in a dull whump, and a small fireball illuminated a bit of the
skyline for a few seconds.
     "Welcome to the apocalypse," V sighed.  "You must be at least
THIS tall to get on this ride."  She held her hand over her head and
grinned.  It made me want to smile back, so I did.  There was little
enough to smile about right now, after all.  A man had to take what he
could get.
     "City's had better days, huh?"
     "Three days and no sunrise," V said softly.
     "Three days," I murmured.  "And no vampire.  Where the hell is
she?  She got her damned ceremony, she got her new Dark.  You'd have
thought she'd be dancing in the damned streets."
     "Especially with AsterGate sealed," V agreed glumly.  "'The
Gods Have Forsaken Us', indeed.  Either they're hiding, or Wynneth's
little spell closed that particular door from our side and threw away the
key."
     "Either way, we're on our own.  Got it.  She did say she was the
new boss goddess, didn't she?"
     "If she wants to be worshipped, she's going to want to put in an
appearance," V snorted.  "Maybe do something about the monster
problem.  Things get much worse, she won't have a city to rule over!"
     Yeah.  The vamp and her absence wasn't exactly a new topic of
discussion.  Consensus was that something was occupying all her time
right now, whether it was recovering from the spell or just arranging even
more wonderful surprises for us.  Either way, the new crop of monsters
were bad, but they were likely the calm before the storm.
     The vamp would show herself.  She hadn't done all this just to
hide away in some hole.  All the scheming, the manipulation, and the
killing, it had all been for this.  Now night owned the city, and she ruled
the night.  So why no wraiths, no demands, no attacks?
     I wanted to know.  I needed to.  That witch wasn't finished with
us, that much was sure.  Good enough.  I wasn't done with her, either.
She wanted the key; she'd come after me, sooner or later.  And when she
did, I'd have my shot at her.
     She had a lot to answer for.
     "Almost that time," I told V.  "Think she'll show today?"
     "I don't know," V confessed.  "Something had to have happened
to her.  I just hope she's okay."
     "You really think this Peorth has answers, huh?"
     "She has more answers than we have, Ranma.  And that's
something."
     "Good point."
     "Come on.  Time's wasting."
     "Race you," I taunted.  That grin returned, her eyes sparkling
even in this corrupt light.
     "Double or nothing?"
     "You cheated last time," I objected.
     "So?  Cheat better."
     "Go!" I shouted, launching myself off the roof.
     V threw herself after me, laughing.
     Laughing in the face of the nightmare.

***

     Don't get separated, Mars thought blackly.  Stay together.  That
was all I asked.  Honestly, that girl is more trouble than a whole
truckload of monkeys.
     She leapt the blackened spot where her fireball had nearly
incinerated the most troublesome of the attacking horde, scanning the
darkened street as she ran.  Everyone had fled the scene as soon as the
trouble had started.  Well, everyone sane; she and the princess had waded
into the fray before the shambling yirdaks could turn the locals into their
own personal buffet.  Mars wasn't certain where she'd ever gotten the
idea that yirdaks were solitary creatures, but obviously she'd been sorely
mistaken.
     This had seemed like a good idea to her earlier.  The prospect of
more fighting meant less time to brood over the deaths of the entire
Sisterhood, the images of familiar faces twisted into death masks of pain
and terror.  Taking out her frustrations on a gang of marauding monsters
was just what the doctor ordered.
     Losing someone else?  That didn't bear thinking about.
     A flare of silver-white light threw back the shadows of a narrow
laneway off to her left, and the constriction in her chest eased quickly.
There you are, you little lunatic!
     Her footfalls were a staccato rhythm as she raced across the now
deserted roadway, hair streaming out behind her like a cloak.  Just as she
reached the alley, a hulking, shaggy form flew tumbling from its mouth,
hitting the ground with a loose thud and sliding bonelessly into a light
pole.  Mars simply dodged the unfortunate creature and flung herself
heedlessly down the narrow lane to the small courtyard at its end.
     Moon was there, her back literally to a wall, a young girl cradled
in the crook of one arm.  Two of the huge, hairy yirdaks had her hemmed
in, yellow eyes gleaming as they tried to split her concentration long
enough to pull the girl out of her grasp.  First the child, then the princess;
the appetites of the yirdak for human flesh were legendary.  Moon,
though, was having none of it.  She swung her sceptre like a sword,
catching one of the beasts in the side of the head, then poking the second
in the eye.  Mars didn't have a clear shot, not with the creatures and the
girls so close and moving.  As she prepared to throw herself into the fray,
though, a warning resounded inside her head.
     Rei-sama, above you!
     She dropped and rolled as craggy gray talons raked the spot
where she'd been standing.  The dark shaped bayed its anger, and Mars
rolled onto her back, heart hammering at her chest.  The thing brushed
aside the two crows that flew at its face, hurling itself at her in a rush of
claws and wings and baleful red eyes.  She met its rush with a lance of
flame flung from her outstretched hand, and the thing's shrieks shaded
from anger to surprise and then, gratifyingly, pain.  Wind rushed down
over her, and the flying nightmare was rising into the dark, in search of
less intransigent prey.
     Gorgeous light flared, pushing the crimson glow from the
courtyard as it filled every nook and cranny with its pure radiance.  Mars
pulled herself from the cold asphalt to see the princess standing there like
a young avenging goddess, limned by the blazing light, her sceptre held
high over her head.  The beasts had been decimated by the ferocity of
Moon's power and lay at her feet, and with the young girl still cradled in
her arm, the scene would have made a perfect statue for a temple to the
Goddess of the White Moon.  Mars realised that she was both staring and
breathless, and shook herself from her reverie as the light faded, sullen
crimson creeping back in its wake.
     "Are you all right?" Moon called.
     "Fine," Mars assured her.
     "That was awesome, Princess!" Deimos beamed.
     "Who is your new friend?" Phobos asked, circling as Mars
moved to Moon's side.
     "I didn't catch her name," the princess admitted, beaming down
at the girl, who couldn't have been more than five or six.  Mars felt a
twinge in her chest at that thought.  She hadn't been much older than that
during the first Dark.  A girl this age wouldn't be out here alone, not
unless something very bad had happened to her family.  "But she was
very brave.  She didn't cry at all."
     Indeed, the girl was quiet, solemn even.  Her twin pigtails were a
dark colour somewhere between pink and red, and she had eyes that had
seen far too much for a girl of her age.
     "Too many tears have already been shed," the girl informed
them, her voice high and clear.  "Such sorrow as has been visited upon us
would drown the world in them."
     "Um, sure," Moon said, puzzled.  Before Mars could reflect on
the peculiarly articulate pronouncement, Deimos squawked in alarm as
something knifed down through the shadows to land soundlessly behind
her.  She spun, her hand outstretched, but the little girl called out for her
to stop, and she found herself obeying instinctively.  The dark form rose
from its crouch, and Mars could make out a lithe, female silhouette.
Then the woman stepped forward, and the senshi took in the faint scale
design on the skintight catsuit as dark as her hair, the blue-gray skin, and
amber eyes with cat's pupils.
     "Banri?"
     "Girlsss of Paal Lunae," Banri hissed softly.  "At lassst, we have
found you."
     We?
     Mars turned in time to see the young girl's form shimmer with
quicksilver light, and Moon stepped back as that light moved, growing
tall and slender.  The light quickly faded, revealing a woman, long-
limbed and possessed of delicate strength, her fine features regal beneath
a tiny black moon that graced her forehead, lustrous hair a rare shade of
deep reddish-cerise-violet.  Mars had only seen her once before, but there
was no mistaking her.
     Dasma.

***

     "Piece of what?" I asked as we lounged against the edge of the
waist-high railing that encircled the fountain.  V rolled her eyes, the lights
catching oily-looking highlights along the brim of her cap.
     "Not Piece Fountain, idiot.  Peace Fountain.  As in not war but
Peace Fountain."
     "Ah.  That makes more sense.  So, why here?"
     "Don't know.  Just before we jumped into the sinkhole, Peorth
said that we should meet up here at noon if we got separated.  And she
didn't show up the first day, so ..."
     "So you keep coming here at noon, hoping she'll make it."
     "Ranma, I told you.  She knows things.  Things about the key.
Don't pretend that you're all cool, bub.  You want to meet her even more
than I do."
     I had nothing to say to that, because V was right.  The prospect of
answers about the mysterious little chunk of crystal that had become such
a constant in my life was tantalising, sure.  I kept telling myself that this
was likely to be nothing, but really, if I was honest with myself, all I was
doing was trying to head off disappointment.  This Peorth just sounded
too good to be true.  Hell, maybe she was.  But here we were, waiting to
see if she'd put in an appearance.
     Despite the current situation, a fair number of people were
milling around the square.  If I hadn't known that it was noon, I'd have
thought that this was an ordinary night in the city.  Life goes on, I
suppose, even when a crazy vampire turns out the sun and monsters run
amuck in the city.  Hell, most of the people were dressed ... well, let me
put it this way.  V's outfit did not look a bit out of place.  She had
modified her Mistress V costume to look a little more "modest", which to
Minako apparently meant adding a short, tight skirt and a jacket cropped
so short it was basically sleeves and a couple inches of glossy leather.  It
barely reached the edge of her rib cage, and no way could she close that
sucker.  Not that she would, of course.
     "So, how long do we wait?" I asked, watching the water in the
fountain spray giddily upwards, then start to dance with smaller jets.
     "I've been waiting until half past," V shrugged, turning her back
to the fountain to rest her butt against the railing.  She put her palms
against the cool stone, her left hand perilously close to where my crossed
arms lay.  I pretended not to notice, though I don't suppose she was
fooled.  There hadn't been much time over the last few days to think
about personal issues, but even in the quiet moments I couldn't seem to
make any headway on the issue of Minako Aino.  I would go from the
talk I'd had with Rei to thoughts of how stupid it was to even be thinking
about this in the middle of such a crisis to thoughts of what if, to crushing
guilt, and back to the start.
     Damn, I wished the bloody vampire would just show up.  I suck
at relationship stuff.
     "Um," I said.  "Hey.  I was thinking ..."  That was as far as I got
before V pushed off the rail and grabbed my arm, spinning me around
and practically falling into my arms, planting kiss right on my mouth.  If
that wide railing hadn't been there, I'd have probably toppled backwards
into the fountain.
     I guess she'd had enough of my indecision.
     She broke the kiss, clutching me tightly around the waist, and
hissed, "Don't look."
     "At you?" I asked, breathless and confused.
     "At them!  Take off my hat."
     "Huh?"
     "My hat!" she whispered fiercely.  "Take it off!"
     Okay, I was definitely missing something.  I reached up and
plucked her hat off, unleashing a cascade of blonde hair that she
immediately tossed , causing it to slither enticingly over my arms as it
fell, unbound, to her knees.
     "A secret benefit of the full goddess mane," she muttered.  "Maybe
it'll cover enough so that I can change ... damn!  They can see us from
there!"  I started to turn my head and she leaned in, reaching up with one
slender hand to catch my braid.  "I said don't look!"
     "What the hell is going on?" I whispered back.  "Who am I not
looking at?"
     I got my answer a second later.
     "You!  Step away from the boy, in the name of the Shining
Crusade!"
     Ah, swell.  Her again.  I peered around V, only to have my fears
confirmed.
     The Vestra Carlina Val Cassanda.  And friends.

***

     Mars fought the urge to gape at their surroundings.  One moment
they were standing in an alleyway, the next they were in the midst of
luxuriant opulence.  The heels of her pumps sank into the deep carpet
which flowed over the floor, up two shallow steps, and away to a wall of
glass high above the city.  The furnishings were ultramodern, sleek and
spotless, and the huge room was decorated with art that appeared, to her
eye, both authentic and valuable.
     All of it paled, of course, next to the woman who stood staring
into the princess's eyes.
     "So strong," Dasma murmured, her voice a deep, smoky purr.
"So valiant.  And lovely.  Ah, daughter of my blood, you are all that I
had hoped."  Her slender hands cupped Moon's face tenderly, fingers
stroking lightly over high cheekbones to the princess's brow, then down
the line of her nose and lightly over her lips, as though seeking tactile
confirmation of an ephemeral sight.
     "You're free," Moon breathed, her gaze locked with that of the
goddess.  "But ... but how?  The ceremony, it was a fake!"
     "Ceremony," Dasma mused.  "Yes, it seems we have much to
speak of.  But hold a moment.  I have been neglecting your noble
senshi."  She turned, and Mars felt a delicious warming just under her
skin as the goddess's gaze fell on her.  An intoxicating aura enveloped
her, subtle heat and perfume, and Mars understood in that moment that
all the Sisterhood's efforts to beguile and entice were pale imitations of
their Dark Lady's natural allure.  There was so much that they had
forgotten in her absence.
     "Come closer, my dear," Dasma said, her low, throaty voice
insinuating itself into Mars' ears.  Mars obeyed, breathless with
anticipation.  She and Saekianna had whiled away countless hours
speculating about their patron goddess and what she would be like when
they, bold and clever, accomplished what no other had and freed her.  In
person, she was everything Mars had dreamed she would be, and more.
She could drown happily in those eyes, drown forever.
     One delicate hand cupped her cheek in a familiar gesture, and
Mars, trained in the arts of intimate seduction, was nearly undone by that
simple touch.  Supple heat flooded through her, washing away all
remnants of anxiety from the fight in the alley as she breathed in the
goddess's perfume, musky-sweet, delicate and subtle.
     Then Dasma's hand broke contact with her skin, and Mars found
herself almost disoriented by the sudden lack of contact.  If this was what
the other orders were able to have, even if only occasionally, then Alieva
had hurt the Sisterhood far more than any of them had appreciated by
taking their Dark Lady from them.
     "House Mars, by your colours," Dasma murmured, smiling at the
stunned senshi.  "Of course.  Always by her side.  And these tiny dolls?"
     "Phobos, Dark Lady," Mars murmured, tilting her head.  "And
Deimos.  Guardians of House Mars."
     "Exquisite.  But here, there is more to you, lovely senshi of fire ...
ah, how utterly perfect.  You've taken the Oath of the Rose.  One of
mine."
     "Yes, Dark Lady," Mars said, her mouth suddenly dry.  One of
hers.  Except she'd left the Sisterhood, and for the first time she faced the
real prospect of having to explain that decision to the goddess she'd
sworn to serve.  That was not likely going to go well.
     "Come, sit," Dasma said, sweeping the two senshi up with an
expansive gesture and herding them over to a low couch.  Mars eased
herself down onto the buttery leather, excitement and dread duking it out
for supremacy as she tried to decide how to broach the subject of her
failings.  There was fleeing the Sisterhood, of course, but also the matter
of not preventing the deaths of every Sister in the Order.
     A long, low padded bench was in front of the couch, and Mars
was certain it hadn't been there only moments before.  Dasma lowered
herself onto it gracefully, reclining on the gently undulating seat and
regarding the pair with avid interest.  Banri appeared at her side, kneeling
while presenting a tray with three heavy, narrow fluted crystal glasses.
Dasma plucked one easily from the tray, then waited while Mars and the
princess followed suit.
     "A toast," the goddess said, raising her glass.  "To new
beginnings."
     They followed suit, and drank.  Whatever was in the glass was
certainly suitable for a goddess's lips, Mars thought as gentle sweetness
insinuated itself into her mouth, seducing her tongue and coiling into her
belly with a heat that made her shudder.  Judging by the expression on
Moon's face, her experience was at least as pleasurable.  Mars held the
glass up so that the twins could sip from it, and she felt their reaction
through their shared link.
     "Wow," the princess gasped at last.
     "I have heard something of the events that have transpired while I
have been sealed away," Dasma said, acknowledging Moon's
compliment by inclining her head slightly.  "Banri told me of your
appearance in the Osiren, and of the deceit that clouded the eyes of my
Sisters.  I would prefer to speak of happier matters, but by the expression
on lovely Mars' face, I fear you have grim news."
     "Dark Lady," Mars began, setting aside the glass in her hand.
"I'm sorry.  I ... I don't know where to begin."
     "Banri said the Sisterhood did not trust you."
     "I ..."  Mars took a deep breath.  The truth.  It had to be.  Hiding
it would only make things worse.  Light flared as she reversed her
transformation, a deep violet top that left her midriff bare and sleek pants
replacing her fuku.  "My name is Rei Hino.  I was known as Rei
Darkeyes in the Sisterhood."
     "That appellation speaks well of their regard for you, Sister."
     "It did, Dark Lady.  But things changed during the reign of the
Nightmistress Griitna Valpini."
     "Indeed," Dasma said, her expression presaging a storm of anger.
"Banri told me of a Nightmistress who betrayed her oath.  I take it she is
the one to whom you refer?"
     "Yes.  She fooled us all, used the labyrinth at Caostye to first
become Nightmistress, then to manipulate us into serving the interests of
others for personal gain."
     The air in the posh penthouse seemed to thicken, and a low
charge prickled the skin.  Moon took Rei's hand, and Rei clung to that
contact as she pressed on.
     "I learned the truth," Rei went on, heart thudding heavily in her
chest.  "I tried to rally the others, but they would not believe.  Not even
my closest confidante.  In the end, I was forced to flee the Sisterhood
before the traitor could kill me."
     Dasma rose easily from the sumptuous divan, her exotic hair
rippling as though in a strong breeze.
     "Where is this woman now?" she asked, and although her voice
was soft, Rei felt fear in the pit of her stomach.
     "Dead, Dark Lady.  The seeds of doubt I planted eventually took
root, and my former friend, Saekianna, defeated Griitna and became
Nightmistress."
     "Indeed."  Some of the menace ebbed from the air, gauzy
material swirling as Dasma crossed her arms.  "It is fortunate for this
Griitna that she is dead, Rei Darkeyes.  She dared to pervert my order,
something that should have been inconceivable to any Sister.  I would
have enjoyed making an example of her."
     "Saekianna was faithful, Dark Lady, but even defeating Griitna
did not remove the shadow from the Sisterhood.  As Nightmistress, she
gained access to the heart of the labyrinth, where she found artifacts of
power that could be used to free you from bondage.  And she found
Banri."
     "Fake," Banri hissed.
     "Yes," Dasma agreed, her patrician features clouded.
"Obviously.  Tell me more, Rei Darkeyes.  Tell me all of it."
     "We now know that a vampiress was responsible for planting the
fakes, Dark Lady.  For all I know, she may have been responsible for
Griitna's betrayal as well.  Certainly she wanted the Sisterhood to believe
that the ceremony they performed on Baniesti would free you.  The fake
Banri was certainly a powerful artifact, and so they believed.  Dark
Lady, Saekianna was no traitor.  She ..."
     "She was Nightmistress," Dasma said sternly.  "And she was
mislead.  But you were not."
     "I knew the truth," Rei replied with a nod.  "We were reunited in
this city less than a week ago, and I tried to make her believe me, but ...
she was determined to destroy the senshi. She saw us as a threat to your
unsealing for some reason, the vampire's doing maybe.  And when I was
revealed to be one of their number, I lost any chance of convincing her.
I'm sorry, Dark Lady.  I failed them.  And you."
     "No!" Moon cried, fairly leaping to her feet.  "It wasn't Rei's
fault, Dasma!  I was the one who promised to save them!"
     "Rei-sama tried!" Phobos added from Rei's left shoulder.
     "They would have killed her!" Deimos spat.  "They ..."
     "Peace!" Dasma commanded, raising one slender hand.  "All of
you, be at peace."  She reached that hand down and gently pulled Rei to
her feet.  "Your eyes tell me that your tale has a dark end, Sister.  Tell
me now.  Tell me of the fate of my order."
     Rei nodded, steeling herself.  "We believed we had stopped the
Sisterhood from performing the ceremony.  We were certain we'd saved
them.  But it had all been a feint, a diversion.  The true ceremony was
being performed in Alieva's abandoned temple near the border of the Old
City.  By the time we fought our way through ... the vampire's circle
snared them, fed on their souls.  We tried to break it, but it ate magicks,
chi, everything we threw at it.  We ... Dark Lady, I'm so sorry.  She killed
them all."
     There was a beat, two, then Dasma threw her head back and
screamed.  Rei and Moon clutched their ears as the razored shards of a
goddess's rage arced outwards, shattering every window in the place and
sending shards of glass spinning out into the darkness.  Rei felt the shriek
in her bones, in the soft places of her body.  Afraid, she moved to block
the princess's body with her own.
     "Abomination," Dasma growled into the silence that followed.
"Undead leech.  She DARES?  I will pull her withered, dead heart from
her chest and crush it with my own bare HANDS for this!"
     Moon clung to Rei's arm while the twins hid under the cloak of
her hair.  Rei tried to calm her pulse and breathing as she watched the
goddess's rage dissipate.  At least it wasn't directed at her.  Not yet,
anyway.
     "I promise you, Dark Lady," she said, holding her head high,
"that I will find this creature and end her.  For them."
     "Bold words," Dasma said, her deep crimson eyes flashing as she
met Rei's gaze.  "You seek redemption for your failure?"
     "I do, Dark Lady."  Rei's blood slammed through her veins, but
she didn't drop her gaze.
     "That is well.  It is hard to say whose failure is greater, yours for
seeing the truth but not stopping this, or my Nightmistress, for being
blinded by this undead creature ..."
     "Gods, Dee.  What are you doing?"
     Rei spun around at the sound of a man's voice.  He was standing
behind them, and she had no idea where he'd come from.
     Dee?
     "We have been speaking of many things," Dasma replied, some
of the tension seeping from the room.  "This vampire you spoke of, Gar,
has proven more troublesome than I had imagined.  She has preyed upon
my Sisterhood."
     Gar was a tall man, broad through the shoulders, the sort of man
that got long, lingering glances from women as he passed.  He wore an
easy, roguish charm like a pair of worn jeans, but Rei suspected there
was more to him, and not just because he could get away with calling the
Dark Lady Dee.  No, there was a sense of carefully restrained power
around him, which only served to enhance his charisma.  Noticing her
regard, he grinned at her, a lopsided, self-deprecating expression that no
doubt set people at ease instinctively.
     "Before the bad news, why don't you introduce us?" he asked,
crossing to stand before the two senshi.  "The uniform I recognise, of
course.  The one and only Sailor Moon, I'm guessing?"
     That's me," Moon confirmed, flushing with pleasure as he took
her hand and raised it to his lips, kissing the gloved knuckles gently while
holding her gaze with his own.
     "Yes, definitely your kin, Dee," he rumbled, his voice pitched
low.  "You two could be twins.  And this is, I'm guessing, one of your
Sisters?"  He turned his tawny eyes to Rei, giving her a gently flirtatious
once-over.
     "That, and the princess's fellow senshi," Dasma told him, and
Rei kept her expression neutral.  She wasn't in a position to criticise a
goddess, but she certainly hadn't intended to reveal that fact.
     "Rei Darkeyes," she said softly as he kissed her hand.
     "Plus Phobos and Deimos, her guardians," Dasma added.
Phobos bowed while Deimos let loose with a low whistle.
     "Boy, you're a long drink of water, huh?" the brash girl grinned.
     "And fair of face," Phobos added.  Gar inclined his head to
acknowledge the compliment, then used his index finger to raise two
small hands in turn, bestowing light kisses on them as well.  And
endearing himself to Rei in the process.
     "Garven d'Or," he told them.  "Pleased to meet you."
     Silence.
     "Garven d'Or?" the princess gaped.  "THE Garven d'Or?"
     "Oh, no," he grinned.  "Just a Garven d'Or.  You'd be surprised
at how common a name it is."
     "Gar," Dasma sighed.
     "Oh, all right," he said, waving his hand negligently.  "Yes, I'm
the same guy."
     "But ... but you fought the Genrous!"
     "I beat the Genrous," he corrected her, eyes twinkling.
     "With help," Dasma pointed out.
     "But you're not a god," Rei frowned.  "Are you a demigod?"
     "Sort of," he confirmed.
     "Gar is my half-brother," Dasma told them, regarding the man
with a mixture of exasperation and affection.
     "That isn't in the old stories," Rei said.  "You were supposed to
be some sort of barbarian king."
     "Yeah," Gar sighed with a wistful smile.  "Barbarian king is a
great gig.  Those were simpler times, Sister Darkeyes, let me tell you."
     "Rei."
     "Gar.  Your Barbarian Majesty is so formal, after all."
     "As modest as ever," Dasma sighed, but her half-brother's antics
seemed to have eased her heart.
     "That's gratitude," Gar complained.  "I practically carried you
back here, woman."
     "Who carried who?" Banri sniffed, crossing her arms and looking
a the ceiling.
     "Wait," Moon said, looking from one to the other.  "You broke
the seal?  You rescued her?"
     "Sort of," Gar said, running his hands through his longish hair,
the light catching dark red-gold highlights.  Gar caught her watching and
winked.  Rei smiled back.  As someone accomplished at drawing
attention, she could certainly appreciate someone else's skills in that
regard.  "I was more in the right place at the right time."
     "He broke into Osiren Black," Dasma told them.  "And before he
fainted ..."
     "Dee!  Passed out, please."
     "Before he succumbed to his injuries," Dasma went on, arching
one elegant eyebrow, "he placed a piece of ancient technology on the
crystal casket holding me.  Banri kept him close, and when Baniesti
came, a wave of energy came with it, rippling through the planes.  That
energy interacted with the converter, and my prison was punched through
the fabric of space, away from the Osiren."
     "Far away," Gar winced.  "It took us damned near three days to
return here.  By which time, whatever had caused the disturbance was
long gone."
     "The vamp's spell," Rei mused.  "I wonder?  It was powerful,
and it occurred at the height of the conjunction.  But that would mean ...
it would mean that the ceremony actually did end up freeing the Dark
Lady!"
     "Inadvertently, yeah," Gar said.
     "So their deaths weren't for nothing," Moon said.  "I'm glad."
     "Deaths?"  Gar looked surprised at that.
     "This undead bitch used my order, Gar.  She led them to their deaths.
I want her."
     "Look, Dee, we've been trying to find her since the airship crash.
And we've tried everything, magick or mundane.  So far, she's a freaking
ghost."
     "She'll wish she was," Dasma said grimly, "when I find her.
Which I will.  AsterGate is closed, but if she believed that she would be
safe, she will soon find out differently."
     "I haven't been able to find out anything about what happened
after Baniesti," Gar told them as Dasma stood there, eyes closed, hands
held out from her body.  "What's our vamp been up to for the last three
days?"
     "Nothing," Rei told him, eyeing the motionless goddess nervously.
This was all happening so fast.
     "Pardon?"
     "She hasn't put in an appearance.  No wraiths, no vamp, nothing.
She told us at the ceremony that she was our new dark goddess, and that
we'd all worship her, but since then she's disappeared completely."
     "Do you think it might have destroyed her?" Moon asked.  "The
ceremony?"
     "I doubt we'd be that lucky, darlin'," Gar shot back.
     "But you knew the ceremony was coming," Rei said slowly.
"You knew to be in the Osiren with this converter ..."
     "I knew the signs to look for," he told her, his expression turning
grave for the first time.  "My mother ... our mother, Dee's and mine, had
... well, a sort of a vision a very long time ago.  I didn't know it would
involve the Dark, or this vampire.  I just knew that something very bad
was coming, and that I had an opportunity to affect the eventual
outcome."
     "So you have no insight into the vampire, Gar?"
     "We should talk more," he told her.  "If we compare notes ..."
     "Damn!"  They jumped at that, all but Banri, as Dasma's eyes
snapped open.  The tiny black crescent moon on her forehead seemed to
shimmer as she stormed across the room, eyes brimming with the
precursors of a storm.
     "No luck?" Gar asked.
     "Necromantic energies are all over the city.  It's as though Saeni
were saturated by vampiric power.  I can't locate the creature this way."
     "We'll get her, Dee.  She can't hide forever."
     "No, Gar.  She cannot.  And when I find her, she will pay dearly
for setting my priestesses against each other.  She will suffer for their
deaths, this I swear."  Rei suppressed a shiver at the leashed venom in the
goddess's voice.  It appeared that Wynneth might very well have bitten
off more than she could chew.
    "Dark Lady," she said, drawing the goddess's attention once
more.  "There are other things you should know."
     "Indeed," Dasma murmured.  "There is great disarray in the
world, greater than you know.  There are matters to which I must attend,
and soon.  Gar, the Queen?"
     "Working my way up to that," he told her, grimacing.  "I don't
imagine it'll go especially well, but I need to get up to speed on just
what's been going on."
     "Let me know what you discover."
     "You sure you don't want me to go with you?"
     "Gar, he will be difficult enough as it is.  Your presence will
achieve nothing positive."
     "Well, you got me there."  He walked up the shallow stairs, a
breeze ruffling his hair kittenishly, and he glanced towards the glassless
windows.  "Just try not to wreck the place, okay?  I gotta live here, you
know."
     Dasma waved her hand, and glimmering lines filled the space
between the narrow window frames.  Glass twirled and glittered as it
spun up from below, filling the window like a film played backwards.
Gar grinned.
     "Thanks, Dee.  Ladies, nice to meet you.  I expect we'll be
meeting again before this is all over."
     Rei wondered if he would vanish before their eyes, but the man
chose to rather anticlimactically walk over to the door and leave in a
completely mundane matter.
     "This is your brother's place?" Moon asked when he was gone.
"It's so nice!"
     "Indeed," Dasma told her.  "Our temples keep quarters for us
when we visit, but mine seems to have been misplaced.  And I can guess
who is to blame for that."
     "The White Order took advantage of your absence," Rei
admitted, face warm.  "I'm sorry that we greeted your return so poorly.
This ... isn't how I imagined things turning out."  She stopped,
overwhelmed for a moment by the image of the fallen Sisters.  Mirra,
Meredith, the twins Jacyinthe and Jackinda, Miaka, Ora ... once they'd
all shared the same dream, to free the Dark Lady and become a respected
order once more.
     "You grieve for them."  The goddess's expression had softened as
she watched Rei's face.
     "Yes," Rei said softly.  "It isn't right, Lady Dasma.  All they
wanted was to have this moment, to be in your presence again.  It was so
close, but they were lost before they could meet you."  Then she
straightened up, recalling what she'd tried to say earlier.  "They are gone,
and we have been unable to locate the Maidens.  But you ..."
     "The Maidens yet live?"  Dasma's eyes widened at that, and a
subtle current arced trough the room.
     "We believe so," Rei told her.  "The problem is that this vampire
took the Nightmistress with her, possibly alive.  The Sisterhood's secrets
will not be safe, so the Maidens will be in hiding.  We have no idea
where to begin looking."
     "But, um, can't you just tell where they are?" Moon asked.  "I
mean, don't you just, you know, KNOW?"
     "Child, are you asking me if I am omniscient?"
     Moon smiled sweetly, sidling up next to Rei.  "Am I asking ...?"
she began in a loud whisper.
     "Yes," Rei sighed.
     "Yes!" the princess announced brightly.
     "We are powerful indeed, but there are limits to even our power,"
Dasma told her with a tolerant smile.  "Not to mention, unrestrained use
of said power in the mortal realm is dangerous.  There can be disastrous
consequences."  She paused for a long moment, shook her head.  "It
would appear that they have taken measures to keep from being found.  I
could break through the veil, but there is a quicker way.  Rei, your
hand."
     Rei reached out as Dasma pulled her legs up, sitting cross-legged
in mid-air.  She took Rei's hand in her own, pricking the index finger
lightly with one long nail as glimmering lines of dark energy began to
swirl into existence around her.  A single drop of blood welled up, fell,
only to freeze inside the rapidly coalescing pattern.
     "You have touched the Black Rose," Dasma said.  "In the most
intimate way.  This should suffice ... ah!"
     Rei watched, astounded, as a complex circle spun into being
around the floating goddess, her blood drop twisting into a shimmering
red triangle.  The small red pointer flowed through the intricate
complexity of the circle, and Rei could only stare in awe.  Dasma had
formed a major magickal working out of nothing and was manipulating
it even as they watched.  She had never witnessed anything this complex;
it was akin to Ami conjuring a diving circle out of thin air while walking
down the street.
     The triangle spun, shedding strange runes that rose through the
air, shading from red to black.  They hung in front of Dasma's face for a
moment, and the goddess smiled as her crimson eyes flicked over them.
     "Yes," she said.
     The pattern exploded outwards, and Rei shielded her eyes
instinctively.  She felt a momentary sense of vertigo, then she was aware
of several things at once.  First, they were now in a large room containing
a scattering of boxes and crates, as well as maybe twenty women.
Second, the women were the missing Maidens.
     And third, they all seemed to be pointing weapons at her.

***

     "Uh, hey," I said slowly.  "Hey, there."  The area around us had
emptied out quickly, and I found myself staring down over a dozen men
and women in robes and gleaming white armour.  They were spread out
in a semi-circle, and if those staves they had aimed at us were anything
like the ones we'd seen in the tunnels, we'd be caught in a wicked
crossfire if we so much as sneezed.
     "Leave him out of it, Carlina," V said, slowly disengaging from
me and turning to face the assembled ranks of Alieva's faithful.  "He's
just a guy I picked up for fun, that's all."
     I opened my mouth, closed it quickly.  Of course, I'd been a girl
the entire time Carlina had been with us in the tunnels.  She had no way
of knowing I was one of the group who'd been holding her.
     "Move away from him."  The Vestra was cloaked in icy hauteur,
and I could only hope that she wouldn't just start shooting out of spite.
She'd been pretty pissed about things the last time we'd met.
     "Okay, okay.  Geez, relax."  V stepped away from me while I
stood there, helpless.  It was probably better to pretend I didn't know
what was going on, but if things got bad, no way was I leaving without
her.
     "So," Carlina sneered.  "We meet again, V.  It is V, isn't it?"
     "Look, Carlina ..."
     "Vestra to you, girl."
     "Girl?  You're hardly older than me, VESTRA."
     "Silence!  You are coming with us."
     "Oh, come on!  You saw us in the tunnels.  We were trying to
stop the Sisterhood!"
     "You," Carlina said, her words frosted with glacial frost, "were
in the company of one of the most cunning and dangerous agents of the
Sisterhood.  At best she has poisoned your soul with her sweet whispers,
at worst?  At worst you are her pawn.  Either way, you are not to be
trusted."
     "You're crazy!"
     "Which would explain," Carlina went on, raising her chin to give
V a superior glare, "why you are here to meet their agent."
     Silence.  I couldn't see V's face, but I suspected she was as
confused as I was.  The only person we knew who'd ever been a Sister
was Rei, and we weren't meeting her here.  Hell, we were here to meet ...
     Oh, no.
     "I don't know what you're talking about."
     "Come, now," Carlina prodded.  "She was captured within the
precincts of our temple as Baniesti approached, and while we haven't
been able to determine exactly what manner of creature she is ..."
     "Peorth?" V blurted, aghast.  "You've got Peorth?  You're
making a mistake, damn it!  She has nothing to do with ..."
     The glimmering light hit her from the side, a gold and white glow
wrapping itself around her body as she stepped forward.  V cried out and
fell to her knees, snared in the capture ward.  The look on my face must
have showed exactly what I was thinking, because four big guys in
gleaming armour stepped forward, two from each side, staves aimed
squarely at me.  I froze, but my temper didn't.
     "Let her go," I said to Carlina, my hands held carefully at my
sides.  The staff wielders were too far back, and they were backed up by
even more of their number, plus what appeared to be spell-casters.
     And I was still going to strangle Carlina if she didn't stop this.
     "Do not trouble yourself for her, boy," Carlina said, already
dismissing me as a threat.  "She would not give you a second thought
were your circumstances reversed.  Find another minx to take to your
bed, this woman is now in the custody of the Shining Crusade.  Now
go, and consider yourself lucky that you escaped her taint."
     I nodded to show that I'd given her words the sober consideration
they deserved.
     "Wrong answer," I said.  I threw V's hat, still in my right hand,
directly at her.  It was far from a lethal weapon, but they didn't know
that, and it bought me the half-second I needed to charge the staffmen on
my left.  These guys had thought I was just some guy off the street; I
aimed to show them just how wrong they were.  The taller of the two
tried to get his staff pointed at me, but I grabbed it with my right hand
and spun, using my left arm to break it free from his grip.  I kept
spinning, bringing the staff around with wicked force and catching the
poor sap on the side of the head, sending him flying as I used the staff to
engage the second target.  I was close enough that the staffmen on the far
side couldn't open up on me without risking hitting their own guy, but I
had to be careful.  If I took him down too quickly, I'd be open to attack.
I had to move him closer to the others.
     The initial surprise of my attack had passed, though, and the
Inquisitors were spreading out quickly.  They were experienced at
fighting as a group, apparently.  Well, hell.  I stopped skirmishing with
the second staffman, catching him square across the chest and throwing
him into one of the female spellcasters.  Then I moved, a blur of motion,
evading streaks of light that exploded against the ground as I speared
another staffman in the gut, using the solid staff in my hands to pitchfork
him up and over my head.
     "That will do!"  Damn.  I turned, on guard, only to find that
Carlina had apparently used her magick to pull V to her as I'd been
fighting.  She was holding the weakly struggling senshi against her, a
small but wickedly sharp blade at V's throat.  "Throw down your
weapon."
     A stand-off.  With a hostage.  I wondered how Carlina would
react if she knew that the Black Rose had done the exact same thing with
one of the White Order's priestesses not so long ago.  And that hadn't
worked out very well for me, either.
     Damn it.
     "If you hurt her," I said, tossing the staff aside, "I will make you
pay."
     "It appears that you are involved in this as well," Carlina said,
giving me a thin smile.  "Bind him."
     I braced myself for the impact of one of those capture wards,
glaring at Carlina as though to burn a hole through her head with me
eyes.  If I could dodge it at just the right moment, I could ...
     "All right, everybody freeze!"
     Huh?
     The plaza had cleared out very quickly when the trouble had
started, but suddenly we weren't alone.  A tall man wearing dark pants
and a matching jacket was striding across the smooth stone mosaic that
surrounded the fountain, something at his belt glittering in the lights.  A
badge?
     Yeah.  And I recognised the nice policeman, too.
     Mamoru.
     "You there!  Drop the knife!"
     "Officer, I am Vestra Carlina Val Cassanda of the White Order
..."
     "And I'm a police officer, and I said drop the damned knife.
Now!"  Carlina did not look happy at that.
     "Now, see here," she began haughtily.  Mamoru stopped, pulled back
his jacket to reveal his gun.  It was a very nasty looking weapon, and
while he didn't draw it from its holster, I sensed that he had her undivided
attention.
     "I will not ask again, Vestra.  The knife.  NOW."
     Slowly, she lowered the blade from V's throat, and I could finally
breathe easy.
     "What is your name?" Carlina demanded coldly.
     "That's DC Chiba," a voice came from behind me.  "And I'm DS
Otohari, Saeni Metro Operations Group, Fifty-five Division.  Are you in
the habit of ignoring orders from the police, Vestra?"
     He walked past me, and I saw a lean, angular face, glasses, and a
blonde ponytail.  It was him, the cop from the river.  What the hell?  Why
was he here with Mamoru?
     "We are engaged in temple operations, Detective Sergeant,"
Carlina informed him.  None of her people had relinquished their
weapons, and I wondered how this was going to go down.  "We of the
Shining Crusade are always pleased to work in conjunction with local
law enforcement."
     "Well, that's right nice of you," Otohari said with a charming
smile.  "Isn't that right nice of them, Chiba?"
     "It would be," Mamoru said, "if they were working in
conjunction with us.  But I don't recall anyone issuing warrants for the
apprehension of the sailor senshi."
     "This woman is a dangerous agent of the Dark Lady's Sisterhood,"
Carlina stated, clearly not pleased by Mamoru's attitude.
     "It's not currently a crime to be affiliated with the Dark Lady, is
it, Chiba?"
     "No, Sarge," Mamoru said, his cold blue eyes fixed on Carlina.
"I'm pretty sure we can't arrest folks for that.  Even if there was some
proof of the allegation, which I haven't seen."
     "This woman is in league with the people who attacked our
temple," Carlina gritted.  "And brought great harm to the White Order.  I
am empowered by the Lady Lumine herself to bring those people to
justice.  If you have a quarrel with my methods, I suggest you ask your
superiors to take it up with her."
     "Not this time, Vestra," Mamoru said.  I noticed movement out
of the corner of my eye.  The other Inquisitors were moving ever so
slightly to flank the two cops.  Oh, boy.  This had the potential to get
ugly.  How far was Carlina going to push this?
     "Must I remind you, Detective, that we have been given broad latitude
to act by the Council of Temples?" Carlina announced, her voice
dropping to sub-zero temperatures.  For a young woman she certainly
wielded authority well.  "With full approval of the palace.  You may feel
free to take this matter up with the appropriate authorities at those levels,
gentlemen.  I am certain that your superiors would be pleased to hear of
your efforts to impede my apprehension of such a dangerous individual.
Especially given the current climate, and all the obvious dangers facing
this city."
     Ouch.  First, she deliberately neglects any mention of their ranks,
then she threatens them with reprisals from higher ups, and finishes by
suggesting that they are neglecting their duties.  I wouldn't have been
happy in their place.  Yusaku Otohari struck me as a fairly laid-back
guy, but I was pretty sure Mamoru was going to burst a blood vessel.
     "Now, you'll have to excuse us," Carlina concluded.
     "I'm pretty sure that I don't," Mamoru said, moving to block her
path.
     "You," Carlina said into the ensuing silence, "are making a very
large mistake, Mister Chiba."
     "Detective Constable," he corrected her with a mirthless smile.
"First Class."
     "Get used to Mister," she suggested coldly.  The others were moving
closer to her now, and I knew that if we didn't do something fast, this was
going to reach the point where blood would have to be spilled.  And I
couldn't be sure that Mamoru would do that.  He was a cop, after all.  He
had rules to follow.
     Me, not so much.
     "The Inquisition," I said loudly, "is not taking V."
     "Inquisition?"  Otohari sounded very intrigued by that.  Maybe
he hadn't known.
     "What a ridiculous thing to say," Carlina scoffed, but the look
she gave me would have dropped a lesser man in his tracks.  "There is no
such branch of the White Order."
     "I was with a bunch of Sailor Senshi the other day, and these
Inquisitors assaulted them," I went on.  "They even broke into a house on
Regal Heights.  Um, 11479.  I bet they didn't have a warrant for that,
either."
     "Well, well," Mamoru said, as if he hadn't been one of the people
to break into said house first.  Carlina's peaches and cream complexion
had gone white with suppressed rage.  I was willing to bet she was
wondering how I knew all this.  Well, let her wonder.
     "This is utter nonsense!" Carlina blurted.
     "If you want to arrest us, go ahead," I continued, walking slowly
towards the Vestra.  "I'm happy to cooperate with the police.  But I'm
not going to let this bunch of zealots kidnap V."  Everybody was
watching me as I moved with careful deliberation to stand in front of
Carlina.  Her eyes were blazing with anger, but she didn't raise the knife
again, and I didn't intend to give her a reason to.
     "Give her to me," I said softly.  My jaw was tight, but I resisted the
urge to yell.  Restraint wasn't my best thing, but Mamoru and his partner
were putting it on the line here, and I was willing to try it their way.
     "Take her," Carlina hissed, her voice too low for the others to
hear.  "We still have your spy, something you could never prove to
anyone.  If you want her, you'll have to come to us.  If this goes official,
she will simply vanish."
     Crap.  Well, one thing at a time.  She released V and I reached
out, not at all pleased by the dazed look in the blonde's eyes.  At the last
minute I moved my hand to grab her shoulders; back in the tunnels, Mars
had advised against touching the ward that had snared Mercury.  Well,
no problem.  Summoning up my chi, I slashed downward with my hand
in one smooth motion.  I'd moved so quickly that the ward had flared and
fallen away before the Vestra and her people had time to react.  I liked
the dumbstruck look in Carlina's eyes as she watched the damaged ward
fall to the ground.  I got the distinct impression that she hadn't thought I
could break it.
     Wordlessly I scooped V up into my arms and carried her over to
Mamoru.  Carlina snapped an order, and her people moved to collect the
guys I'd cold-cocked.  Carlina gave me a cold stare.  I took it, sharpened
it up, and sent it right back.
     "I intend to take this matter to the highest levels," she informed
Detective Sergeant Otohari grimly.  "Were I you, I would keep those two
in custody.  If they cannot be found when the Lady Lumine finishes her
complaint to Her Majesty, you two will be fortunate if you are merely
fired."
     "I'll take it under advisement," Otohari assured her with bland
good humour.  "You folks have a nice day now."
     I stood there as the Inquisitors formed up and moved off, the
outer rank turning to keep their eyes on us as though we might attack at
any moment.  Hell, maybe they thought we would.
     I was seriously tempted.
     "Yu," Mamoru said in a low, terse voice.  "We shouldn't just let
them go."
     "Easy, partner."
     "They have no right to act above the law!"
     "No, they don't.  But we've both seen temple power override right in
the past."  Otohari pulled his glasses off and wiped the lenses with a
small, soft cloth produced from his overcoat pocket.  He smiled at me,
put them back on.  "And she wasn't wrong, that snippy little Vestra. The
palace has indulged the temples in their pursuit of revenge ... I mean,
justice, against their rivals far more often than either of us would like.  A
lot of important people have turned a blind eye to a lot of goings on in
return for cooperation from the temple hierarchy.  That's politics.  And
now more than ever, we need everybody on side.  Just between us, I
assume that the Vestra didn't make up this link between the young lady
and the Sisterhood?"  This last was directed at me.
     "There was a misunderstanding," I admitted.  "Her people
jumped to conclusions and attacked the senshi.  Which is funny, since the
Sisterhood did the same thing, assuming the senshi were working with
the White Order."
     "Nice," Otohari sighed.  V stirred, snuggling deeper into my
arms, her head pillowed on my shoulder.  The scent of her was very
distracting, and I fought to concentrate on what Otohari was saying.
"Look, if there's even a little truth to the rumours of what happened at
the White Order's temple the other night, then this isn't over.  The Lady
Lumine will go straight to the Queen herself and ask that you be turned
over to them for questioning."
     "We can't let that happen," Mamoru said.  "You heard what he
said.  Inquisitors."  He walked over and picked V's cap up off the
ground, dusted it off, and gave it to me.  I nodded my thanks.
     "Yeah," Otohari said slowly.  "I heard.  In which case, you
should watch your back, young man.  Accommodating the temples is one
thing, but this black bag stuff is something else entirely.  Nobody's ever
been able to prove that the temples have enforcement arms that operate in
what could at best be described as gray areas."
     "But you believe," I said.
     "We've seen enough to worry," Mamoru told me.  "Ask any cop.
Nobody talks about it officially, but the whispers are there."
     "The temples are as bad as the freaking gangs, I swear," Otohari
sighed.  "But they keep it in the family, so to speak.  And too many
people in the city are members of various temples.  People like crown
attorneys, judges, ministers of the Crown."
     "Are you going to arrest us, then?" I asked.
     "No," Otohari said with a grin.  "I know that your lovely friend
has an ace up her sleeve.  She personally saved Her Majesty's life."
     I knew, because I'd been there.  I couldn't tell him that, though.
     "Modesty forbids me from talking about it," V mumbled into my
shoulder.
     "So I feel certain that Her Majesty will approach the White
Order's accusations with the appropriate skepticism."
     "It could get rough for you two, though," she said, peering out
from under tousled blonde tresses.
     "We can handle it," Mamoru assured her.
     "But it would be good if we could contact you," Otohari added.
"Our boss is sure to want a statement to cover her ass."
     "Why, Detective Sergeant," V said coquettishly.  "Are you
asking me for my phone number?"
     "What lady wouldn't want a brave, handsome policeman at her
beck and call?" her shot back with a crooked grin.  I felt my face heat up
as jealousy pricked my ego.  The two of them were flirting like I wasn't
even here.
     "Well, I do like a man with a ponytail," she murmured.  Then I
felt her tugging on my braid.  "But Ranma's is longer," she purred, and I
flushed for an entirely different reason.
     "Hey!" I protested.
     "Size isn't everything," Otohari laughed, not stung at all by her
teasing.
     "Yu, really, now's not the time," Mamoru sighed.
     "You boys need us, leave a message at Club Kiss," V said, still
smiling impishly.  "I'll get it.  And I'll make sure MY boss lets yours
know how you saved our asses."
     "Appreciate it," Otohari said.  He moved to join Mamoru, and
V's expression turned sombre.
     "One more thing, guys.  Because I know you're going to catch
some heat over this no matter what."  The two men paused expectantly.
"The Sisterhood is dead."
     "What?"  Otohari looked genuinely shocked.  Mamoru, of
course, was not, so it was probably lucky his partner was looking at us
and not him.
     "It happened the night of the storm," V said.  "A trap, laid by the
vampire.  I have no proof to offer you, except my word.  The senshi saw
it happen, but we couldn't stop it.  That little tidbit ought to brighten up
the Vestra's day."
     "Damn," Otohari said, shaking his head wearily.  "Okay, thanks.
That might come in useful.  Any info on the vamp herself?"
     "No," V lied.  Yeah, nothing we could share, anyway.  "Beyond the
obvious.  We've been trying to find her, but no luck."
     "You two stay out of trouble," Mamoru said.  "Going home
might be a good idea."  I met his gaze and nodded.  That sounded good to
me.
     They walked us out of the plaza, watchful for anyone the Inquisition
might have left behind, but we spotted no one.  We parted ways, and I
found a nice dark alleyway to fade into.
     "Can you walk?" I asked V.
     "Well, I don't want to, if that answers your question," she said,
arms twined around my neck.  "I'm comfortable here."
     "Mercury recovered quicker," I pointed out.  V pouted, stuck her
tongue out, and leapt neatly from my arms to land on the wet, cracked
pavement.  I tossed her cap over, and she put it on.
     "You know, there is evidence of what happened the other night,"
I told her.
     "Yeah, but I wasn't going to tell him that we buried the dead
Sisters in the Zone," V replied.  "Let the dead rest in peace, not get dug
up by some Inquisition zealot."
     "That Vestra chick is beginning to become a problem," I
growled.  "Did you hear what she said to me?"
             "Uh-huh.  She's got Peorth, and she practically gave you an
engraved invitation to come take her back.  That's the only reason they
let this go so easy."
     "Easy?"
     "Relatively easy," V shrugged.  "If we break into the temple to
get Peorth back, then they've got us dead to rights, and out of sight of the
law to boot.  Um, we are breaking in to rescue Peorth, right?"
     I thought about the possibility of answers, tucked away in that
temple, just waiting.  Sure it was a trap.  I'm no dummy.  But the vamp
was still out there, and if I ever wanted to risk using the technique that
had beaten Arj and Fenrir, I was going to need to know more about the
key.
     "You're damned right we are," I said.
     "Ooo, it gives me a tingle when you talk tough," V sighed.  "We
should let the others know what's going on.  But we've got a stop to
make first."

***

     "What is the meaning of this?"  Rei held very still as Yurina
pushed her way to the forefront of the group, ornate fan clutched in one
hand.  Her gaze took in Moon and then Rei, and her perfect pale skin
went dead-white.  "You.  Why have you come here?  Revenge?"
     "Yurina," Rei said gently.  "We brought someone who wants to
meet you."
     Yurina's dark eyes flicked over the princess, widened as Dasma
moved from the back of their little group.  Her full lips parted, trembled.
     "What is this?" she whispered as a ripple spread through the
assembled Maidens.  "What ... the vampire?  Treachery!  Gods DAMN
you!"
     "No!" Rei cried as Yurina snapped her fan open, eyes
shimmering with unshed tears.  "Yurina, listen ..."
     But the Black Rose was beyond listening.  As far as she was
concerned, the ceremony had been a fake, and so there was no way that
Dasma could be standing before them.  Thus, this must be a trick
engineered by Wynneth.  Understandable, in Rei's opinion, but Yurina
was about to do something very bad.
     She struck at the Dark Lady.
     Or she tried.  Dasma didn't seem to move, but suddenly Yurina's
hand was empty.  She stared at it as if not quite able to process what had
just happened, and Dasma stepped forward, closing the distance between
them.
     "Black Rose," she said, her voice low and intimate.  "I am no
phantom, come to torment you.  I am your Dark Lady, and I demand
your service."  She reached out, cupped the petite beauty's cheek, drew
her close.  The goddess's other hand came up to slip easily inside
Yurina's low-cut dress, and Rei knew it was resting on the Black Rose
tattoo there.
     The others were frozen, as much by Dasma's powerful aura as by
their desire to believe, Rei thought.  Dasma's scent seemed to turn the
stark room's air into something more than the mundane, creating a
precious vapour that could sustain a person in a state of ecstasy, without
such frivolities as food or drink.  Yurina herself seemed dangerously
close to swooning, and Rei knew how difficult it was to render Yurina so
utterly defenceless.
     "Know me," Dasma breathed.  "In your heart, my Black Rose.
Lies and deceit have preyed upon your soul, but I know you have not
forgotten the truth.  Believe."  Dasma bent down, gently grazing
Yurina's mouth with her own, and the Black Rose sagged against her,
undone by just that fleeting kiss, the flickering fluorescent lights catching
gorgeous points of glimmering darkness in her intricate swirl of hair and
combs.
     "Yurina!" one of the Maidens called out.  Rei held her hand up,
although she saw she needn't have bothered.  None of the girls were
pointing weapons any longer.  They were still confused, and more than a
little frightened.  Because they wanted to believe.  They did.  But they'd
believed before, and the results had been disastrous.
     Dasma waited patiently until Yurina could stand on her own.  The
Black Rose drew in a shuddering breath, another.
     "Dark Lady," she breathed.
     And fell to her knees.
     The effect was immediate.  The others collapsed like a supple
wave of perfumed silk and long limbs and hair, bowing before their
goddess.
     "Maidens of the Rose," Dasma intoned, surveying the kneeling
girls.  "I know that you have suffered much in my absence, but your
suffering is now at an end.  Rise, that I may see you."
     They obeyed, and Rei saw that the girls were still in shock.  It
must seem like a dream to them.  Gods knew, she was still having trouble
believing it.
     "Dark Lady," Yurina murmured, all sophisticated grace once
more.  "I beg your forgiveness for not knowing you on sight.  I am
Yurina Delacatta, Black Rose of your Order.  I am shamed by the
displeasing surroundings you must endure, and I am ready to accept the
brunt of your displeasure."
     "That would be the duty of the Nightmistress, Yurina," Dasma said,
although without rancour.  "Was it not she who led the order to this
state?"
     "Dark Lady!" one of the Maidens cried out, falling once more to
her knees in a cloud of raven curls.  Bella, Rei thought.  Be careful, you
little fool.  This isn't like provoking one of the Sisters into dishing out a
little discipline.  "Please, the one who stands beside you is a traitor to the
Sisterhood!  You must not believe what she tells you!"
     "Be still, child," Dasma said, and immediately Yurina moved to draw
the goddess's attention to her.
     "Forgive Bella, Dark Lady, for her impertinence.  She only wished to
serve you faithfully."
     "I am aware of Sister Darkeyes' failures," Dasma informed them.
"She has not sought to hide them from me.  Her faith was true, but she
lacked the strength to sway her Sisters.  And I know that your
Nightmistress possessed the strength to lead, but was lead astray by our
enemy, unable to see the truth.  Sister has fought Sister, and strife has
torn apart my Order."
     The Maidens stood, hands clasped, more than one trembling
under the gaze of their goddess.  The time of reckoning had arrived for
them, and they knew it.  Dasma looked to each in turn, as though
measuring them.  Or judging them.
     "However," she said at last, her voice low, a sensual treat, "the
greatest failing was mine."
     "Dark Lady!" Yurina gasped, appearing truly distraught.  "No!
We were the ones ..."
     "Be still, my Rose," Dasma said, and although her tone was
gentle, Yurina obeyed without question.  "More than a century," the
goddess went on after a moment, sighing the words as the room seemed
to quiver like a soap bubble.  "Such a sort time to one such as I, but to
you, so very long.  On that day I fell to my sister and was sealed, and so
you were without my guidance when you needed it the most.  I cannot
judge you harshly without also judging myself, my Maidens.  For why do
I wear this emblem?"  She touched the crescent moon on her forehead
lightly with the tip of one finger.  "Why am I proud to be Fallen?"
     She stood there, her warmth pervading the space, making it seem
as opulent as Gar's penthouse had been.  Rei found herself hanging on
the cadences of Dasma's voice, every subtle rhythm resonating in her
body pleasurably.
     "Because," she said, her soft voice carrying effortlessly.
"Because in return for your devotion, we are obligated to guide and
protect our followers.  Our duty demands this.  But our cousins forgot the
ancient covenant between us.  They judged themselves above it.  We who
rebelled against this injustice, we have never forgotten.  Even in cold,
crystal sleep, I never forgot you.  You are mine, and my enemies will pay
dearly for what they have done to you."
     More than one of the Maidens was weeping openly.  Rei
understood well; she had dreamed of this day, after all.  This was what
Saekianna and the others had put everything on the line for.  And they'd
come so close, so very close.
     "How may we serve, Dark Lady?" Yurina asked.  Her fingers
curled, trying to stroke her missing fan, and suddenly it was back in her
hand.  Yurina blinked, but otherwise showed no surprise.  She had
regained her famous composure.
     "For the moment, dear Yurina, I wish only to ensure your safety
while I investigate the forces that have beset this city more thoroughly.
Moon?"
     The princess had been watching the proceedings quietly, no doubt
feeling like an intruder.  Rei watched her come forward, the twins
amusement resonating through their link as they watched the Maidens
take in the resemblance between their goddess and the girl they'd
believed to be their enemy.
     "Maidens, this is my Deitra, daughter of my blood.  You know
her as Sailor Moon."
     The expressions on the faces of the assembled Maidens told the
story.  Shock, of course, but also a dawning horror.  They had tried to
subvert the senshi at times, and to destroy them the night of Baniesti.
And not only was the leader of the senshi not the enemy, she was blood
kin to their Dark Lady.
     "Um, hi," the princess said, waving.
     "Mistress Moon," Yurina said, bowing deeply.  "In our ignorance,
we have brought harm to you and yours.  I beg your forgiveness in the
name of the Maidens of the Rose."
     "Oh," Moon said, fidgeting slightly and shooting Rei a fleeting
glance.  "I mean, of course.  I'm sorry that we couldn't stop the
ceremony and save the others."
     "I saw," Yurina said, meeting Moon's gaze gravely.  "After the
ceremony, I tried to make my way back.  I saw you lay them to rest.
You honoured our dead, despite all we had done.  You are truly our
Dark Lady's Deitra, and we owe you a debt of gratitude."
     "As do I," Dasma said, reaching up to touch Moon's cheek.
"Thank you, Princess."
     "We all did it," Moon said, flushing.  "Together."
     "You protected my fallen Sisters," Dasma said.  "Now, I ask that
you help protect my Maidens.  Use your power to keep them safe from
the darkness that hungers for them."
     "Of course," the princess said, smiling.  "I'll be glad to."
     Oh, Usagi, Rei thought.  Jumping in with both feet again.
     "Splendid.  It will set my heart at ease, knowing that they are safe
in my absence."
     "Dark Lady, forgive my presumption, but must you leave us?"
Yurina asked, the tension in her hands where they gripped her fan the
only outward sign of her distress.  "So soon?"
     "Catastrophe lurks all around us, my Rose.  I must know more if
I am to find this vampire and end her and her foul works.  Until I can
return, be assured that you will be safe with my Deitra and your new
Nightmistress."
     It took a few seconds for that last remark to sink in, and Rei
blinked as she realised that all eyes were on her.
     "Nightmistress?" she echoed, a vertiginous wave sweeping over
her.
     "You are the only remaining Sister, Rei Darkeyes," Dasma said,
cocking her head and sending ripples through her exotic hair.  "And you
told me you wished to redeem your failure."
     "I ... I do, Dark Lady."
     "Then you may begin by seeing to what remains of my Order.  Take
them from this dismal place.  Shepherd and protect them.  Fulfill
the duties of my Nightmistress, Rei Darkeyes.  I give these girls into your
care.  I will return as soon as I am able."
     She turned and walked past Yurina, touching her lightly.  Then
she moved through the Maidens, touching each of them in turn.  "Be not
afraid, my Maidens.  You are not alone any longer."
     They smiled, gasped, shivered.  Each of them was affected deeply
by a simple touch as their goddess walked among them, blessing them
with her presence.
     Then she reached the back of the room, and turned, meeting Rei's
eyes.
     And was gone.
     There was a moment of silence as the room seemed to sigh,
weighed down by the absence of the goddess.  Then Yurina turned to Rei.
     "Nightmistress," she said, bowing gracefully.  "What is your will?"
     "Yes, Nightmistress," Moon echoed, a slight scowl tugging at her lips.
"What now?"
     A very good question.  Rei took a deep breath, felt Phobos and
Deimos stir on her shoulders.
     "Do you have transport available for everyone, Yurina?" she asked.
     "We do, Nightmistress."
     "Good.  Gather whatever belongings you managed to collect and get
ready to move everybody to more suitable surroundings.  Let me know as
soon as you are ready."
     Yurina nodded and walked to the assembled Maidens, her body
swaying seductively.  The girls, who seemed as stunned by the sudden
turn of events as their new Nightmistress, gathered quickly around her to
receive their instructions.
     "What is going on?" Moon hissed in her ear as the girls moved
around the room, packing with quiet efficiency.  There were more than a
few surreptitious glances fired their way, but Rei pretended not to notice.
Oh, this was going to be tricky.
     "Our Rei-sama just got promoted," Deimos offered cheerfully.
     "Usagi," Rei whispered.  "Please.  What am I supposed to do, say
no?"
     "Well, no, I suppose not.  But ..."
     "I owe them this much," Rei told her.  "At least.  And you already
promised to help protect them as the Dark Lady's Deitra."
     "Well, I guess so, yeah.  But what ... I mean, Nightmistress?  You?"
Clearly, the princess wasn't thrilled at Rei becoming an active Sister once
more.  Rei was more than a little worried about what would happen if the
Dark Lady decided to declare war on the White Order, something that
she was certain hadn't even occurred to Moon when she'd agreed to help.
But one thing at a time.
     "They need me, Usagi.  If the vamp finds them, they won't stand
a chance."
     "I know, you're right.  Okay, so, where are we taking them?"
     "Someplace safe, where I can keep an eye on them."
     "Gar's penthouse?"
     "Not big enough for, what, twenty-four girls?  Anyway, we don't
know where it is."
     "Well, anyplace Saekianna knew, Wynneth might know," Moon
said.  "So where do you ..."  She trailed, her eyes going wide as she
realised where the discussion was leading.
     "Usagi, there's only one place I can take them."
     "Oh, Rei.  Ami will have an EPISODE!"
     Yes, Rei thought glumly.  She probably will.
     How do I get myself into these things?

***

     "Hey."
     "Hey," Ami answered, peering over the tops of her wire-framed
glasses.  Luna lay curled in her lap, and Ami paused in her lazy
scratching of the black cat's ears as she turned to see Makoto standing in
the doorway.  "How did it go?"
     "Not great," Makoto sighed, tugging down the zipper on her
leather jumpsuit as she strode across the room and plunked her riding
gloves down on the desk, pausing to give Luna a welcoming chin scratch.
     "Yoshi's still not talking?"
     "Oh, he's talking," Makoto growled.  Ami could see the
frustration roiling in the tall girl's green eyes like thunderheads.  "Mostly
to tell me to stay away."
     "I'm sorry," Ami sighed.  "I know that must be hard for you.
But maybe he's right.  Not only is the moon full, but it's Nemesis.  The
effect on shifters has been pretty unpredictable, at least according to the
reports I've been able to get."
     "I know," Makoto said, tossing her ponytail back with a sharp,
frustrated gesture.  "I know, I do.  You're right.  He's right.  But right
doesn't make it easier, you know?  I want to help him, Ami.  Damn it,
he's all alone!  At least the other shifters have packs to support them,
leaders to keep order.  That damned moon is riding him, and what if he
loses control?"
     "That's what he's afraid of," Ami reminded her gently.
     "I'm not.  I'm not afraid, because I know he wouldn't hurt me.  I
trust him, and he should trust me."
     "He trusts you.  More than anybody.  Just give him time."
     "Time," Makoto sighed.  "Who knows how much time we have?
This thing could last months this time.  Or longer.  So, any good news?"
     "I'm afraid not," Ami said glumly.  "My information network
has been somewhat compromised by the persistent jamming effect.  Only
certain telecommunications circuits are still active, and traffic over those
is at a crawl for the most part.  But what I have been able to find out isn't
especially promising."
     "Still no sign of her?"
     "None.  Which, in itself, is odd."
     "Tell me about it," Makoto grumbled, hooking a spare chair with
her foot and pulling it close so that she could drop her lanky frame into it.
"I kind of expected her to have started building a throne of skulls or
something on the ruins of the palace by now.  And a temple where we
could all go to worship her.  Wynneth went to a lot of trouble to bring the
Dark.  Now she can walk around whenever she wants to, so where the
hells is she?"
     "Perhaps executing that spell took all her strength," Ami
hazarded.  "But I am quite certain she'll turn up."
     "You find out anything about her?"
     "I believe so," Ami said, plucking off her glasses and nibbling
absently on the earpiece.  "Look at this."
     "What is all that?" Makoto asked, leaning in to peer at the
glowing screen of Ami's computer.
     "Well, that is poetry.  Ancient verse, dating back to the Carna
Blae."  Makoto looked at her blankly.  "That's the period in history
between the fall of the White Moon Court and the rise of the Genrous,"
Ami clarified.
     "Oh.  Sure."
     "It was a time characterised by warring states which emerged in
the wake of the fall of the Gaian Royal House to feast on the corpse of
civilisation.  Those states slowly descended into depravity and chaos, and
not much is really known of the period.  Few records survived, and
historians are far more interested in the Genrous than the world that
spawned them."
     "Don't take this wrong, Ami, but ancient history isn't really my
thing," Makoto said wryly.  "I don't really see where this is going."
     "I found some references in the few existing histories, like this one,
about a military outpost.  It was found abandoned, apparently, not long
after the fall.  What was left of the central authority sent more guards to
hold it, but they also vanished.  The entire area was sealed off, and
declared off-limits.  No further attempts were made to man the outpost."
     "Those were wild times, right?" Makoto shrugged.
     "Yes, but what's interesting is the outpost's location.  It was apparently
built on the ruins of the spaceport at Carnica.  And this Wynneth would
have had to reach Gaia from the moon somehow ..."
     "Huh.  Hardly proof, though."
     "We're not going to find documents saying 'Wynneth was here',
Makoto," Ami pointed out.  "This is as much an art as a science,
searching through histories and legends this old.  For instance, these
passages you were asking about are from two old poems written during
the Carna Blae.  The first is about a travelling bard that finds a town
under a strange spell.  The people, let's see here, the translation goes,
"sleepwalking through the hours of day, craving night as a sot craves the
bottle."  The tale tells how almost all the townspeople are under this
spell, with more falling to it every night.  The bard meets the daughter of
the mayor who tells him that this all started with the arrival of a strange
woman, um, "fair of skin with tresses of night, her eyes the promise of
unearthly delights."
     "At least that one rhymes."
     "Oh, quiet.  They all rhyme in the original.  Anyway, the
beautiful maiden begs our hero for help releasing the town from this
woman's spell.  He agrees, but then the mayor and his men storm in and
lock up our hero.  It's dark by the time he breaks out of his cell, and he
creeps around the town, trying to find the maiden.  He finds her in her
chambers, but he's too late.  The Lady of the Storm is there already."
     "That's the pale brunette?"
     "That's how she's referred to in the poem, yes.  He speaks of his
terror watching the maiden swoon in this woman's embrace, how her hair
is like a nest of serpents, her eyes glow with unholy light in the shadows,
and her kiss draws blood and puts the maiden under her spell.  He tries to
stop this tryst of depravity, but the woman, though slender and slight, is
inhumanly strong.  He escapes into the forest and returns days later with
the local lord and his men, but they find the town deserted, no sign of any
of the townspeople.  According to the poem, the town was abandoned and
shunned by all from that day forward."
     "Spooky," Makoto shrugged.  "But hardly proof."
     "No," Ami agreed.  "But there are similarities to our Carnica outpost
report.  And they refer to her as the Lady of the Storm."
     "She arrived during a storm, I guess.  Sense of the dramatic."
     "Maybe.  But in the old tongue, Wynneth translates to 'bringer of
storms'."
     "Huh."
     "Exactly.  The other poem is supposedly a tale related to a man in
a tavern by a decrepit old drunk.  He was once a man of means, and
brought a traveller into his home out of charity when she fell ill on the
road near his estate."
     "Let me guess."
     "Yes, the physical description fits.  At first his daughter is
delighted by the lady's company, but slowly his maids begin to fall ill,
lethargic during the day and evidencing strange behaviour.  Eventually
his daughter becomes affected as well, and he begins to suspect the
alluring beauty he has brought into his home."
     "Likes the ladies, doesn't she?"
     "Apparently.  There's the marks on the neck and ... other places,
the rising from the graves, and the beauty, wicked and debased, gloating
as she takes them man's daughter and turns her against her own father.
The poem ends with the man telling how he was allowed to flee to live
out his days suffering with the knowledge that he could do nothing to
stop her."
     "The Lady of the Storm?"
     "Her name, apparently, was Morgana."
     "Okay, I get it.  She shows up in early vampire stories."
     "Not just that," Ami said, shifting in her seat.
     "You'll love this part," Luna sighed, flicking one ear.
     "These are the earliest references I could find anywhere to
vampires or vampiric lore.  I'm almost certain that there were never any
stories of vampires during the Silver Millennium, and Setsuna backed me
up on that."
     "So she's an ancient vampire," Makoto said.  "She was telling
the truth."
     "Not just that, Makoto.  Wynneth may very well be the FIRST
vampire.  The mother of them all."
     "Holy shit," Makoto whispered as the implications sunk in.  "But
... wait.  Vampires can make other vampires.  If she was first, who made
her?"
     "I don't know.  But if she really has been around since the fall of
the White Moon, then she is far older than any vampire was ever thought
to be.  She may have powers that none of the others ever had.  There are
references throughout history that may be her, mostly folk tales and the
like.  But even when powerful clans of vampires rose to prominence, her
name never comes up.  The oldest, most powerful vampire known was
Demetias, who was thought to be nearly three thousand years old,
although that was never authenticated.  He led the vampire clans up to
the period of the Long Dark.  We know Wynneth was around then, she
attacked Hotaru's mother.  Did the others know who she was, or was she
running things from behind the scenes?"
     "I'm betting she let the others do all the dirty work," Makoto
sighed.  "That seems like her style.  Haruka and Michiru say that
Hotaru's been going squirrelly since she found out about Wynneth
claiming to be her mother.  She's got them out all the time, trying to find
the witch."
     "Everybody is trying to find her," Ami pointed out.  "And that's
one thing that puzzles me.  Wynneth skilfully manipulated the Sisterhood
into performing that ceremony for her, but she's still just one vampire, no
matter how old she is.  If she had an army of undead at her beck and call,
I'd have expected to see them by now.  She talked about being our new
dark goddess, so why haven't we seen her?  The new monsters are a
bigger problem than she is."
     "Careful what you wish for," Makoto grumbled.
     "It just doesn't make any sense.  What's she up to?"
     "Maybe you're right, she has to recover from the spell.  Or maybe
things didn't go the way they were supposed to.  Who knows?"
     Ami felt Luna tense in her lap, and the cat's ears pricked up
suddenly.
     "It's Usagi," she announced, jumping down from Ami's lap and
racing out the door.
     "Suppose we should go tell her the good news?" Ami asked.
     "You go," Makoto said, standing and extending into a luxuriant
stretch.  "I'm going to get changed."
     Makoto headed to her room as Ami went downstairs to find the
others.  The past few days had been hectic, but Wynneth's absence had
gone from puzzling to worrisome in Ami's eyes.  It had taken a great deal
of planning to bring about this new Dark.  If Wynneth really had
survived for millennia, then she was patient beyond anything they had
ever encountered short of a goddess.  And she had no doubt learned much
from the failures of the Long Dark.  They needed to stay on their guard.
     Ami swept down the long spiral stairs, heading towards the
entryway once she reached the bottom.  Even preoccupied as she was,
something didn't seem right.  It sounded like there were a lot of people
coming in.  Even if Ranma and V came back at the same time, it
wouldn't make this sort of commotion.
     "Usagi?  Rei?"
     "Ami."  Rei came through the door, and right away Ami sensed
that something was amiss.
     "Rei?  What's going on?  Who's with you?"
     Rei walked over to her and gently placed her hands on Ami's
shoulders, blocking her from going into the entryway.
     "Ami, I need you to just stay calm and keep an open mind," Rei
began.
     "It has been my experience that conversations that begin that way
go downhill really fast," Ami replied.  Now she was beginning to worry.
"Rei ..."
     "Ami, do you trust me?"
     Ami stared into those gorgeous violet eyes and started nibbling
her lower lip thoughtfully.  Events had drawn her and Rei closer than
they had ever been, and Ami knew she could trust Rei.  But for Rei to
actually ask that question, this had to be really serious.
     "Of course," she said.  "Do you trust me?"
     "I do.  And I'm about to ask you for a really huge favour."
     "Rei.  Tell me who's in the foyer."
     Rei sighed.  "Come on," she said.  "I'll introduce you."
     "Oh, look!" a voice came from beyond the arched doorway.  "A
kitty-cat!  Oh, aren't you adorable!"
     "No, he's not!" came Luna's arch reply.  "Artemis!  Get down!"
     Rei grimaced.  "That didn't take long," she muttered, leading
Ami to the foyer.  Ami stopped in the doorway, momentarily struck
speechless by the sight which greeted her.  Who were all these girls?
Why ...?
     Wait.  She recognised that one.
     Lily.
     "Ami," Usagi said.  "We ..."
     Ami grabbed Usagi with one hand, Rei with the other, and pulled
them both around the corner.  Pushing them away from the doorway, she
grabbed her henshin rod and triggered her transformation.  Keeping an
eye on the doorway, she summoned her scanner and pressed the handheld
unit up against Usagi's forehead.
     "Um, Ames?  Honey?  What's up?"
     "Checking for drugs and toxins," she said tersely.
     "We haven't been drugged," Rei sighed.  "Or brainwashed.
Look ..."
     Mercury pulled the unit from Usagi and switched it to Rei.  Both
checked out okay.
     "Ami," Rei murmured.  "They don't have anywhere else to go.
Please."
     "Wait.  You want to keep those girls here?" Mercury asked.  "After
everything that happened?  After everything they did?"
     "It's kinda complicated," Usagi told her.  "Dasma asked us to
look after them for her."
     "Dasma."
     "Yup."
     "Asked you."  Mercury stuck the scanner back on Usagi's
forehead.
     "Don't bother," Rei sighed.  "I'm sure her brainwaves barely
register."  Usagi stuck her tongue out, and Mercury shook her head.
     "Okay, am I the only one who thinks this is crazy?"
     "No," Rei admitted.  "Look, Ami, I wouldn't ask if there was
another option, but any safe houses they had were compromised when
Wynneth took Sass.  It'll only be for a little while.  Dasma knows what
happened and she is going to be hunting Wynneth.  Once the crisis is past
we can find other quarters for them."
     Mercury stared at Rei, then Usagi.  This was the last thing she
had expected to have to deal with, but both of her friends seemed totally
sincere.  She took a deep breath, let it out slowly.
     "Dasma," she said, transforming back in a blaze of light.
     "Freed by Garven d'Or," Usagi said helpfully.  "Kind of.  It's a
long story."
     "Which we'll tell you," Rei added.  "But first, I was hoping we
could put these girls in one of the unused wings, get them settled and out
of the way before the others come back ..."
     "Makoto," Ami blurted, eyes wide.
     "Her especially," Rei nodded.  "I don't ..."
     "No, she's here," Ami said.  "Upstairs."
     "She must have parked around back," Usagi groaned, slapping her
forehead.  "Damn.  Okay, Rei, you take care of this.  I'll go talk to her."
     "Maybe I should do it," Rei said.  "This is my responsibility."
     "Yeah, I think maybe I'll do it," Usagi said firmly.  "Just do
something about them, okay?"  She spun and raced for the stairs, leaving
Ami and Rei alone.
     "I'm sorry Ami.  If I could have called ahead ..."
     "Rei, I do trust you.  Okay?  This isn't about trusting you, it's
about trusting them."  Ami kept her voice low, aware that there was a
conversation taking place in the foyer, but that at least there wasn't any
shouting yet.
     "They'll do what I tell them, Ami.  I'll keep them in line."
     "Why would they listen to you?  Because you were right about
the ceremony?"
     Rei toyed with her hair, fidgeting as she shot a quick look towards
the doorway.  "Actually, the Dark Lady made me the new
Nightmistress."
     "She.  You.  Did.  What?  Holy hells, woman!"
     "There's a whole story ..."
     "I'll just bet."  Ami shook her head.  "Okay.  At least for tonight.
But we're going to have to sit down, all of us.  Rei, have you thought
about how Makoto's going to take this?  Having Lily here?"
     "Believe me, I have.  But first things first, okay?"  Rei moved
closer, cupping Ami's face lightly.  "Thank you, Ami.  I mean it."
     "Don't thank me yet," Ami sighed, pulling away.  "We might all
end up regretting this."
     She brushed by Rei and walked back out into the foyer.  Luna
and Artemis had returned to human form, and Luna had planted herself
firmly between the pale-haired man and the crowd of lovely Maidens.
     "We're not shifters," she said coldly.  "Not that it's any of your
business."
     "Luna," Ami said, "could you do me a favour and go up to my
room?  There's a ring of keys in the nightstand and I'm going to need
them."
     "Gladly."  Sniffing haughtily, she grabbed Artemis by the arm
and towed him away.
     "You must be our hostess," someone said, and Ami turned to see
Lily bowing to her.  Or Yurina.  Whatever her name was.  "On behalf of
the Maidens of the Rose, I offer you our gratitude."
     "You should be grateful to Rei," Ami shot back.  "I'm only doing
this because she asked me to."
     "I understand your anger," Yurina murmured, inclining her head
while snapping open a dark, lacquered fan and fluttering it languorously.
     "Do you?" Ami asked tightly.  "You attacked us repeatedly and
without provocation, attacked Makoto at her home, Minako at her job,
unleashed a succubus on our princess and her boyfriend.  You've brought
a lot of misery to me and my friends, so excuse me if I have trouble
welcoming you with open arms."
     "We have all suffered from this vampire's schemes, Lady Ami,"
Yurina said, her tone soft.  The girls who stood behind her looked tense,
tired, and even scared.  Ami knew they'd been through a lot, and she felt
a twinge of sympathy, but the fact remained that she resented their
presence in her home.
     "Makoto suffered from your actions long before that."  Yurina
froze, and Ami saw that her words had hit home.  Strangely, that
revelation gave her no satisfaction.  "She's my friend, and you hurt her."
     "I am sorry.  If I could change what happened, I would."
Yurina's gaze was sombre.  If Ami had sensed any attempt to charm her
or manipulate her feelings, she'd have kicked the lot of them out right
then and there.  It seemed as though Yurina was being sincere, however,
and although that was of little comfort at this late date, it was at least
something.
     "I believe you," Ami said at last.  Rei, she noted, was remaining
silent.  "This vampire used you, I know that.  If you're going to be
staying here I expect you to use all your resources to help us fight her."
     "Yes," Yurina breathed, and there was fire in her dark eyes.
"Anything you require.  Believe me, Lady Ami, we desire nothing more
than the death of this creature.  Once we locate her, our Dark Lady will
make her pay."
     "All right."  Luna had returned, and Ami took the keys from her.
"You can stay in the east wing.  It's been unused for a while, so it won't
be too welcoming."
     "That won't be a problem," Rei assured her.  "The Maidens are
used to operating as domestic staff."
     Maids, Ami thought.  Of course.  Minako would love this.
     "Great.  Everybody follow me."
     And I hope, she thought grimly, that I'm not making a huge
mistake.

***
     "Mako-chan!"
     Makoto grinned as Usagi ran up to her, throwing her arms around
the taller girl's shoulders.
     "Welcome home, Princess.  How did things go?"
     "Oh, you know," Usagi told her.  "Fighting monsters.  Been
there, done that."
     "Uh-huh."
     "You?"
     "The same.  Plus stubborn werewolf problems.  Did you talk to
Ami about the vamp?"
     "Not yet."  Usagi rubbed her palm lightly over Makoto's
shoulder.  "How's the arm?"
     "I told you, it's one hundred percent.  See?"  Makoto caught
Usagi around the waist and easily hoisted the girl into the air, evoking a
fit of giggles from the blonde senshi.
     "Okay, okay, I get it!  Put me down!"  Makoto set her lightly on
her feet, and Usagi sighed.
     "All right, Usagi, let's have it."
     "What?"  Instantly, Usagi's eyes went wide and innocent, and
Makoto gave her a crooked smile.
     "Don't give me those eyes, girl.  What's up?  You're jittery as
Ami after a pot of coffee."
     "Huh.  Guess I can't fool you," Usagi said with exaggerated
casualness.  "You're a sharp one, Mako-chan.  I was a fool to even ..."
     "Usagi."
     "Um, yeah."  Usagi reached out and slipped her arms around
Makoto's waist.  Since the taller girl was wearing a cropped t-shirt,
Usagi's arms ended up resting warmly against bare skin.  "Listen, I have
some news."
     Uh-oh.
     "What's wrong?"  Makoto tensed, and Usagi squeezed her
gently.
     "Nothing!  Well ... actually, it's kind of complicated.  Mako-
chan, you know I love you, right?  And I'd never want to do anything
that would cause you pain."
     "Okay, now I'm really worried.  Spill it, Usagi.  What's going
on?"  Makoto grabbed the lithe girl by the shoulders and pushed her
away gently, holding her gaze as she willed her princess to come clean.
"What did you do?"
     "It's not what I did, exact ... well, I did do part of it, actually ..."
     "Usagi Tsukino!  Talk!"
     "We met Dasma."
     Makoto tried to process that.  "Huh?" she managed at last.
     "Me and Rei."
     "Dasma."
     "Uh-huh."
     "The actual Dasma."
     "And Banri.  She was there, too.  And Garven d'Or."
     "Usagi," Makoto said gently, "have you been drinking those little
bottles of chocolate liqueur again?"
     "No," Usagi sighed, as though she dearly wished she had been.
"No, this is really real, Mako-chan.  Garven d'Or went to Osiren Black
and used some weird thing to free Dasma when the vamp's spell went off.
She's free."
     "Holy shit.  I mean ... this is good news, isn't it?"  Makoto stared
at Usagi, who seemed to be choosing her words carefully.  "Usagi?
Okay, seriously, tell me what you did."
     "Oh, relax.  I didn't do anything stup ... well, craz ... okay, here's
the thing.  Remember when I promised Banri I'd help protect the
Sisterhood?"
     "Yes, I remember it vividly," Makoto muttered.  "And?"
     "Well, she remembered, too.  And Dasma, well, she's pleased as
punch to meet me.  We're related and all ..."
     "Didn't forget that, either.  But Usagi, the Sisterhood is gone."
     "Right.  But there are still a few members of Dasma's Order that
survived."
     Makoto stared at her for a moment, taking in Usagi's too-bright
smile as the implication sank in.
     "The Maidens," she said slowly.  "Dasma wants you to protect
them."
     "Uh-huh."
     "Well, if she's free, why doesn't she do it?  I mean, she's their
goddess, after all!"
     "She's trying to figure out what's going on with Wynneth and
everything.  So she's gone ... well, somewhere.  I'm not sure where.  But
she named me as her Deitra, so I'm officially part of the family, I guess."
     Makoto opened her mouth.  Paused.  Closed it.  Opened it again.
Nope, still nothing.  Her mental wheels spun for a few moments, looking
for traction.
     "But what does that mean, exactly?" Makoto asked, enunciating
each word deliberately.  "I mean, we knew you were her direct
descendant.  But acknowledging it like that, does that make you part of
her Order or something?"
     "Huh.  I never thought about that.  It was all a little quick."
     "Don't you think we SHOULD be thinking about this?"
     "Yeah, well, there are other things that, um ..."  Usagi's smile had
become so fixed and wide that it began to appear distinctly grimace-like.
     "There's more?" Makoto blurted.
     A little," Usagi confirmed, smiling sweetly.  "Okay, I want you
to promise to stay calm, okay?"
     "I started out calm.  I'm getting less calm as this conversation
goes on.  So tell me, already."
     "'Kay.  So Dasma wants us to protect the Maidens for her while she's
gone, which means looking after them, making sure they're safe from the
vamp, that kind of thing."
     "So we have to go looking for them?"
     "Kindasorta no.  See, we already found them.  And they're
downstairs."
     Makoto felt her pulse in her temples, and as she breathed in her
whole body shuddered.  She let her breath out slowly, aware of Usagi's
eyes on her.
     "Lily's with them."
     "Yurina.  But yes, she is.  Mako-chan, I know how unfair it is to
ask this, but I made a promise.  I have to protect them from the vampire.
But you're my friend, and I love you, and I don't want to hurt you.
Please, Mako-chan, tell me what I can do.  Please?"
     Makoto looked into those clear, sky-blue eyes and knew that
Usagi wasn't trying to charm her into accepting her decision.  That
wasn't Usagi's way, not with something this serious.  No, Usagi just
wanted to know how she could make this right for everybody.  She
couldn't, of course, not even Usagi could do that.  But she was going to
try.
     And Makoto loved her for that.  In fact, loving Usagi meant
accepting that she'd always try to save people, even if they didn't deserve
it.
     "I want to see her."
     "Her?"  Usagi blinked rapidly, trying to process Makoto's words.
"You mean ... YURINA?  Oh, Mako-chan, I don't ..."
     "Usagi."  Makoto took the girl by the shoulders, held her as the
torrent of words quickly trailed off.  "Do you trust me?"
     "Wh ... of course I do," Usagi protested.  "Mako-chan ..."
     "I won't hurt her.  Okay?  I swear.  I know you made a promise, and
I'm not going to make you betray it."  Makoto squeezed those slender
shoulders, willing her princess to understand, to believe.  "But I'm not
going to hide from her, either.  I deserve a chance to look that woman in
the eye."
     "Okay," Usagi said.  She was studying Makoto's face, no doubt
looking for that famous temper, but all she found was determination.
"Okay, I get it.  Come on, let's get this over with."
     Usagi led her downstairs and into the main hall.  The double
doors that led into one of the unused wings were standing open, and from
the sound of voices, the people they were looking for were in there.
Makoto strode across the tiled floor, only to be brought up short when
Artemis appeared in the doorway.
     "Oh!  Makoto!  Hey!"  He grinned, obviously trying to think of a
way to prevent her from going inside, and she sighed.
     "I know they're in there, Artemis.  It's okay."
     "Okay?" he repeated, smile evaporating.  "I'm trying to think of
some way that this ends up okay, and I'm coming up blank."
     "Artemis, relax," Usagi said.  "She promised."
     "Well, all right."  Reluctantly, he stood aside, and Makoto
pushed through the doors.  Now that the moment was at hand she waited
for the white hot flash of anger, for the same heat that had risen so
dramatically when she'd first seen Lily in the alley.  But it didn't come,
and somehow she wasn't surprised.  She'd been over this again and again
since that moment, both in her own mind and with her friends.
     Now?  Now it just felt strangely ... inevitable.  As though she'd
known this moment would arrive, and had grown weary waiting for it..
     There were girls bustling around the hall in here, opening doors
and carrying bundles of cloth, probably drop cloths from the furniture.
The first one saw her and stopped, pale blue eyes flicking from Makoto
to Usagi.
     "Mistress Usagi?" she asked, her voice high and sweet.
     "We're looking for Yurina and Rei," Usagi told her.
     "They're in the lounge at the end of the hall, second floor," the girl
replied politely.  She glanced at Makoto again as the pair moved on, and
she was hardly the only one.  Makoto wondered if these girls knew who
she was, of her shared history with their Black Rose.  They already
looked nervous.  It was hard to tell if her presence was increasing the
tense mood or not.
     Well, tough for them.
     She found them right where the Maiden had said they'd be.  Rei
and Ami stood together, Ami with her arms crossed, not looking happy as
Rei spoke to her in low tones.  Yurina was close by, giving orders to one
of her girls.
     Yurina.  She'd always be Lily to Makoto.  She wore a black
dress, low-cut and slinky, and her long hair was bound into intricate
swirls of pure glossy black, held by delicate jewelled combs.  Makoto
could almost see the girl she'd befriended, wearing third-hand clothes and
washing dishes in companionable squalor.
     Yeah.  It was still her.  It would always be her.  She crossed the room,
pulse speeding up a bit, her eyes fixed on her target.  Dimly, she was
aware of Ami's reaction, of Rei turning, but that didn't really matter.
Even as Usagi moved to intercept Rei, Makoto had only one thing on her
mind.
     Lily.
     The girl Lily was talking to glanced up to see Makoto
approaching, and her reaction made the Black Rose turn.
     To find Makoto standing over her.
     Makoto wasn't sure if all activity in the room stopped, or she just
stopped hearing it.  Either way, the two of them might as well have been
alone here, just the two of them.  Lily's expression, in the unguarded
moment before a placid mask slammed over it, told Makoto everything
she needed to know.
     Yoshi had been right.
     "Well," Makoto said softly.  "This is awkward."
     "Makoto."  The girl started to raise her fan, but stopped halfway.
Probably, Makoto reflected, because her hand was shaking, ever so
slightly.  Those full breasts rose as Lily took a deep breath, and those
perfect red lips parted.  "I ..."
     "I'm tired," Makoto said, her voice still soft as she stared down at
the face she'd once dreamed of turning to a bloody pulp with her bare
fists.
     "What?"  Shock had robbed the girl of her sensual grace, and
Makoto was glad.
     "I'm tired," Makoto repeated, skin prickling at her proximity to
the other girl.  "I'm tired of carrying my hatred of you around.  It's
gotten heavy over the years, Lily.  Really damned heavy."
     "My name ..." the petite beauty began hesitantly.
     "Save it."  Yurina's mouth shut quickly.  "You know, I talked to
Yoshi after that little incident in the alley.  About you.  Just like old
times, Lily.  And do you know what he told me?"
     "I can imagine."  Her voice was low, tight.  The room was
definitely silent now, everybody watching the drama unfold. Well, let
them.
     "Oh, I doubt that very much.  He told me to put my hate down, Lily.
Yoshi told me to just put it down and let it go."
     Makoto smiled mirthlessly as Yurina's dark eyes went wide.
     "Oh, yeah," she breathed.  "See, Yoshi's learned a lot about
revenge over the years.  Me, too.  Those guys who did the deed, they're
dead.  All of them.  Between us, we did for the lot, Lily.  That's a lot of
fucking revenge.  But those kids are still dead."
     Makoto paused.  She had all the time in the world, and she
wanted to make sure she got this right.  She wasn't as articulate as Ami
or Rei, and she wanted Lily to get the full effect of what she was saying,
so she took a breath, marshalling her thoughts.  Lily stood, frozen, and it
was somehow gratifying.  Lily'd been a girl who'd always known what to
say in any situation.
     But, apparently, not this one.
     "He saw the look in your eyes, Lily.  In that alley.  Yoshi, he told
me you looked guilty.  He figures that if you can feel that, then maybe
you've been paying for what you did."
     "I never intended for anyone to get hurt."  Yurina's voice was
small but steady, and she didn't look away.  Makoto gave her points for
that.
     "I guess I believe that, Lily, because otherwise we wouldn't be
having this conversation.  But you betrayed my trust, and that you
intended from the beginning.  That's on you, Lily.  No one else.  That
was you then, and it's you now.  Sending people to my home, drugging
Minako at her club and Setsuna in Shadow.  That's the kind of person
you are."
     Yurina's bare shoulders betrayed her tension, fan clutched in both
hands.  "I had my reasons for what I did," the girl said tightly.
     "I don't care about your reasons," Makoto said curtly.  "These
are my friends, Lily, and you are only in this house because my princess
promised to protect you.  And she keeps her promises.  If you betray her
trust, I will make you regret it."
     "I understand."
     "Excellent.  Then stay out of my way, and everything will be
fine."
     Makoto turned.  The others were watching her with varying
expressions.  Usagi seemed relieved that things hadn't gotten ugly.  Rei?
Well, her expression was hard to read.  Makoto hoped she wasn't going
to get pissy about this.  The last thing she wanted was to start feuding
with Rei again.
     "Yurina," Rei said.  "Take the girls and see to those rooms.  I
want them spotless and ready within an hour, and I want a complete
inventory of what you managed to bring with you."
     "Of course, Nightmistress."  Makoto turned, but Yurina was
already leaving, gently shooing the few Maidens in the room ahead of
her.  Makoto turned back, giving Rei a quizzical stare, running over what
she'd just heard.  No, that couldn't be right.
     "What did she just call you?" Makoto asked at last.
     "Dasma made her the new Nightmistress," Usagi said with a
weak smile.  "I didn't want to overload you with stuff all at once ..."
     "Right," Makoto said, pinching the bridge of her nose.  "Does
anyone know what an embolism feels like?  Because I think I'm having
one right now."
     "Makoto."  Rei was standing there, and Makoto was suddenly
just weary.
     "I don't want to hear it.  Okay?  I just don't."
     "I know," Rei said.  "But I'm sorry for putting you in this
position.  If there was another way, believe me, I'd take it.  And I know
you had a right to say what you did to Yurina ..."
     "But?" Makoto asked.
     "They aren't monsters, Makoto.  Three days ago, they watched
their friends, lovers, comrades killed in front of their eyes.  And they
know that they played a part in that."
     "So they feel my pain, huh?"
     "I think Yoshi was right about her," Rei said, stepping in close
and peering up into Makoto's eyes.  "I think it does prey on her, what
happened.  I know that's not much, but it's something.  She's suffering
like you were, Makoto.  She was manipulated, and it cost her."
     "I didn't ask for that, Rei.  I don't take any pleasure in it."
     "I know," Rei breathed.  "Because that's not you."  She took
Makoto's hand, and Makoto let her.  "I don't expect you to forgive her,
or even feel for her.  All I ask is that you remember that these girls are all
suffering something you remember well.  Give them some space."
     "Not a problem," Makoto muttered.  "Look, Rei, don't take this the
wrong way, but this whole thing is just wonky.  We should be hunting
this vamp, not babysitting Dasma's lot.  Couldn't you just tell her you
didn't want to be Nightmistress?"
     "Oh, Mako-chan, I don't think that would have been a good
idea," Usagi winced.  "Her temper is, well, kind of like yours."
     "It's not an easy thing to say no to a goddess," Rei added, raking
her hair back with her fingers.  "Believe it or not, this is the best I could
hope for."
     "The best?"
     "I abandoned the Dark Lady's service, remember.  She's giving me a
chance to redeem myself here.  As a goddess, she isn't exactly required to
grant me due process.  I pledged myself to her service, then I left it.  She
could pass whatever judgement she pleased."
     A chill skittered across the back of Makoto's neck at that.  "I hadn't
thought of that."
    "Well, get used to thinking of things like that," Rei told her.
"Because, for better or worse, we've gotten ourselves involved in the
affairs of a goddess.  From here on in, all bets are off."

***

     Coming home to find seven strange cars parked outside generated
some speculation on Minako's part.  Me, I was still preoccupied with
thoughts of Peorth and the answers she held.  I needed a plan, and so far I
didn't have one.  Well, not much of one.  Full frontal assault wasn't so
much a plan, more of a tactic.
     "New cars for everybody," Minako mused as we went inside.
"Part of an incentive program.  Kill a vamp, win a car.  Those are some
pretty posh rides."
     "Maybe they're Haruka's," I muttered.
     "Girl does like her cars," Minako admitted.  "But even she can't
drive seven at once.  Where is everybody?  Honey, I'm home!"
     I noticed absently that the big double doors at the far side of the
foyer were open.  I guessed they went to a part of the house that had been
closed off; the place was bloody huge, and even the one wing we used
was too big for us.
     "I guess they're in there," I said.
     "Wonder what's up?"  Minako headed over, and I trailed along.
We stepped through the doors, and I nearly ran into Minako when she
stopped sort.  I opened my mouth to ask what was wrong, then noticed
what she was looking at.
     Girls.  Strange girls, bustling around the hallway and generating
a low buzz of excitement.
     "Are we in the wrong semi-abandoned mansion in the middle of
nowhere?" I asked.
     "No," Minako replied.  "We're not.  So who are they?"
     A girl came out of the room closest to us and hesitated, then
bowed in our direction.
     "Welcome home," she said.  She was carrying a plastic pail of
water and wearing a maid outfit that looked like something Minako
would have come up with, a little black number trimmed with white that
straddled the line between severe and sultry.  And I hadn't even known
there was a line between those two things.
     That wasn't what caught my attention, though.  She was very
pretty, with gray eyes and long hair, blonde on top but black underneath,
creating an interesting effect at the ends.  Narrow waisted and long
limbed, she moved like a dancer.  I watched the light glint off a tiny stud
in her pert nose and wondered why she looked so familiar.
     "Who the hells are you?" Minako asked as I suddenly realised
where I'd seen the girl before.
     "Hey," I said.  "Didn't you try to kill me a few nights ago?"
     "I don't believe so," the girl replied with a pretty frown.
     "What?" Minako asked.  "Ranma, what are you ...?"
     "Danni?  What are you doing?"  Another girl joined us, dressed
in a similar outfit.  She was shorter than Danni, but definitely bustier, and
her long mane of dark curls cascaded wildly around her slender form.
Danni hadn't been in the tunnels, but Curls had.  "Oh.  More friends of
Mistress Usagi's?"
     "You," Minako gaped.  "I know you.  You're a Maiden."
     "We all are," Danni confirmed cheerfully.
     "You were in the tunnels," Curls said to me, her pouty lips
pursed in thought.  "Sister Meredith and Sister Jacyinthe showed us."
     "Wait," Minako said loudly.  "Just wait.  What in the hells are
you doing here?"
     "Ah, Minako Aino.  And friend."  That voice I knew.
     "Yurina," I said.  The Black Rose walked up to us as if she had
every right to be here, bowing politely.  Minako looked from one girl to
the next, confusion rapidly shading towards anger.
     "Correct, young man.  You seem confused by our presence here.
I take it you have not yet spoken with Mistress Usagi."
     "Mistress Usagi?" Minako asked.  "Since when is she Mistress Usagi
to you?"
     "Since our Dark Lady has acknowledged her as her Deitra," Yurina
informed us.
     "Who what huh?" Minako blurted.
     "Wait," I said.  "Dark Lady?  Acknowledge?  But the ceremony was
fake!"
     "And what do you know of that matter?" Yurina asked me, not
exactly coldly, but with a precise formality that managed to communicate
displeasure without being offensive.
     "I was there," I frowned.  Man, I'd had her in my arms.  How
could ...?
     Oh.  Right.
     "Hang on," I said, taking the pail from Danni and checking the
water.  Cold.  I splashed myself, water and magick rippling across my
skin.
     "You," Yurina breathed.
     "Oh!" Danni exclaimed.  "Now I know who you are!"
     "Hold it," Minako said.
     "As do I," Yurina said, her entire demeanour changing subtly.
     "I said HOLD IT."  Minako held her hand up, shaking her head.
"This is crazy.  Why are you here?"
     "I brought them."  We turned to find Rei standing behind us,
hands on her hips as she regarded the scene.
     "You brought them," Minako repeated slowly.
     "It's a long story," Rei said with the air of someone who'd had to
say the exact same thing several times in a short span of time.
     "I bet."
     "You," Yurina said softly.  "She said something about a disguise
spell in the tunnels, but I hadn't imagined it would be so utterly perfect."
     "It wasn't a disguise," I sighed.  "I can change from boy to girl."
     "Really?" Curls asked, her eyes lighting up
     "You are the one called Ranko, yes?" Yurina prompted.
     "It's Ranma, actually," I told her.
     "Ranma."  She was standing very close, and she didn't have to
tilt her head back to look into my eyes now.  "You ran the gauntlet at the
island, but even though we used lethal force, you did not kill any of my
Maidens."
     "She was almost gentle," Danni said with a slow smile.  "I barely
had a bruise when I woke up."
     "And you saved my life," Yurina went on, long sooty lashes
lowering alluringly.  "When we gave you no reason to show mercy.
Such speed.  And daring."
     "Not fast enough," I said, my throat tightening at the memory.
"That girl, the one you tried to save.  Sarah.  I'm sorry I wasn't fast
enough to save her, too."
     Yurina paused, her demeanour shifting again, that supple
flirtatiousness becoming frank appraisal.
     "You are, aren't you?" she breathed.  "Despite everything we put
you through, you grieve for her loss."
     "I've lost enough people to monsters in my life," I told her stiffly.
"She didn't deserve that."
     "You are a rare spirit, Ranma, rare indeed.  And you have earned
the gratitude of the Maidens.  And my personal gratitude, as well."  Her
lips parted slightly and she held my gaze, but I flushed like she'd touched
me.  It wasn't magick, at least I didn't think so, but she'd managed to
make her meaning very, very clear with just her intonation and subtle
body language.
     "I'm certain Ranma appreciates the sentiment, Yurina," Rei said.
"But I need him and Minako now, and you girls have work to do."
     "Of course, Nightmistress," Yurina said smoothly, holding my
gaze a few moments more.  "Come Danni, Bella.  Let us show our
hostess our skills."
     With one last knee-weakening smile, she turned and led the other
two away.  I was fairly sure that I was sweating, and was momentarily
grateful for the water on my skin.  I turned, only to be brought up short
by Minako's glare.
     "Looks like you made a new friend," she said archly.
     "What?  No!"  I said.  "I mean, not no, but, you know ..."
     "She was being frank about her gratitude," Rei told us.  "It's
nothing to be upset about."
     "Oh, naturally, Nightmistress," Minako said snippily.  "That is what
she called you, isn't it?"
     "Minako ..."
     "Just when did they decide to make you the new boss, anyway?"
     "They didn't," Rei told her.  "Dasma did."
     Minako and I traded a look, and Rei sighed.
     "Like I said, it's a long story," she sighed, exasperated.  "Look, let's go
to the kitchen.  Everybody's there, and it'll be easier if we can do this all
at once."
     We found the others in the kitchen as promised.  I ran some hot
water as Makoto rifled through the cupboards.
     "Minako," she said.  "I know you've got something to drink in
here somewhere."
     "Here," Minako said, gently moving her out of the way.  She swept
her long blonde hair aside and hopped up onto the counter, sitting there
and reaching up to open one of the upper cupboards.  "Allow me."  She
reached inside, pushing boxes of food aside until her hand emerged with
a bottle of dark amber liquid that was at least half full.  Makoto held out
a glass and the blonde wordlessly poured a healthy shot into it.
     "All right," Rei sighed as I doused myself with hot water.  "So
everybody's wondering what's going on."
     "Let's start with Dasma," Minako said, grabbing a glass and
pouring herself a shot as Makoto leaned back against the counter, sighing
deeply.  That move made her cropped t-shirt pull tightly against her
breasts, and Minako paused to appreciate the view.
     "Apparently, an aftereffect of the spell released her," Rei told us.
"Thanks to Garven d'Or and some piece of advanced technology."
     "Wait.  The Garven d'Or?" Minako asked.
     "No, just a Garven d'Or," Usagi beamed.  Everybody stared at
her.  "Well, it was funnier when he said it," she mumbled with an
apologetic smile.
     "So he managed to break the seal, but it took them some time to
return here," Rei went on.  "And then Dasma found us fighting some
yirdak uptown."
     "How?" Ami asked.
     "Pardon?"
     "How did she find you?  I mean, I assume that Banri told her
about the princess, but it's a big city."
     "That's a good question," Usagi nodded.  "Since she's not really
omnidextrous."
     "Omniscient," Rei sighed.  "And we didn't get to ask a lot of
questions.  It was a little overwhelming, honestly."
     "And you're sure it was her?" I asked.  "And not, well, another
scheme by this Wynneth?"
     "She touched me.  I'm sure."  Rei leaned back in her chair.
"Besides, if Wynneth could find us this easily, I have to think that she
would.  The Maidens, too."
     "Right," Minako said.  "The Maidens.  Which brings us to the
new Nightmistress, which is you."
     "I didn't ask for the position," Rei replied.  "But for the time
being, I think it would be wise to make as few waves as possible about
this.  So while the Dark Lady is off doing whatever, I've been tasked
with keeping what's left of her Order safe."
     "To be fair," Usagi broke in, "I did promise to keep her people
safe, too, remember?"
     "Let's remember something, though," Minako said, kicking her
legs idly.  " These girls are not innocent victims of circumstance.  They
brought this on themselves, even if they thought they were freeing their
goddess.  And all along the way they used the most underhanded tactics
available against us, the people who were trying to help them.  We've
done more than our fair share for Dasma's Order.  Maybe she should take
it from here."
     I looked from Minako to Rei.  There was just no way this was
going to end well.  Judging from the expressions on the other faces
present, I wasn't the only one thinking that, either.
     "You're right," Rei said.  I blinked.
     "What?" Minako asked, feet freezing in mid-kick.
     "Minako, I'm not denying any of that."  Rei flipped her hair back
and leaned forward, steepling her fingers and meeting Minako's
astonished gaze evenly.  "For over a century, the Sisterhood has been an
outlaw order, operating completely underground.  They've been hunted
by their enemies and preyed on by the unscrupulous and those who knew
they had no official standing and very little power.  Over time the Order
has become insular, developing an us-versus-them mentality that
bordered on paranoia.  Outsiders were widely regarded as untrustworthy,
either threats or marks."
     "None of this makes me think we should keep them here,"
Minako snorted.  Makoto nodded, setting her empty glass aside.
     "Just let me finish," Rei said.  "These girls, all the Maidens here
and all the Sisters who died, they chose this life.  They were drawn to the
Order not in spite of its nature, but in most cases because of it.  Even
finding the Sisterhood has been perilous for quite some time, but still
girls came.  I hated the world for letting my mother die, and I welcomed
the life the Order offered, living on the dark edge of eroticism in a world
of dangerous, high-octane sex filled with dominance games and darkest
desire, punishing those we judged guilty and indulging our darkest
appetites in the name of our perceived righteousness.  We were
persecuted, and nobody understood what we stood for.  At least, that's
what we told ourselves.
     "But somewhere along the way, we forgot what we stood for,
too."
     We sat there in silence, weighing Rei's words.  Usagi, sitting next
to her, reached over and took her hand.  Rei smiled at her.  There was no
self-pity in her voice, no plea for understanding.  She was just telling us
the facts.
     "I never realised most of this until I left," Rei said at last.  "I told
you that before, when we first spoke of our pasts.  Being with all of you
showed me clearly how wrong we were about a lot of things.  What I'm
saying here is simple.  I was like them, once.  If I hadn't left the Order, I
probably still would be.  And once upon a time I wanted to be
Nightmistress.  I wanted the power it would bring me, the authority over
the others, the prestige.  Now the Dark Lady has given me that position,
and maybe that's a good thing after all.  Because I think it's time the
Order shed its outlaw status and began trying to be more."
     "You're going to try and reform the Maidens?" Minako asked,
clearly taken off-guard.  "Rei, these girls are never going to be Royal
Girl Scouts."
     "I don't want them to be.  The Order can still keep its fangs, but
they have their patron goddess back now.  Hells, right now they may be
the ONLY order with a patron.  They need to learn to begin interacting
with supplicants, performing public duties, even serving on the Council
of Temples and liaising with the palace, all the things that they once did.
They need to start looking beyond the narrow scope of their world and
being part of something bigger.  I know they haven't earned it, but what
I'm asking is that you give them a chance.  As long as they're here, I'll
be responsible for them.  And trust me, they know better than to step out
of line."
     "Okay, I see what you're saying," Minako said.  "But there's
something else that I was wondering about ... Mistress Usagi."
     "I know," Usagi beamed.  "Isn't that wild?"
     "Wild isn't the word," Ami muttered.
     "You know, I really don't think you've considered the
ramifications of Dasma naming you her Deitra," Rei said with a frown.
     "Wait, Yurina was serious about that?" Minako yelped.
     "What?  What'd I miss?" I asked, looking around.  "What's day-
trah, anyway?"
     "Deidar and Deitra are terms for recognised offspring of the
gods," Minako told me, still staring at Usagi.  "Sons and daughters of
divine blood.  Demigods.  Dasma just elevated Usagi to basically being
her family."
     "But wasn't she already that?" I asked.
     "Yeah!" Usagi blurted.  "That was the whole point of ..."
     "This is different," Rei insisted.  "There are plenty of divine
bastards running around, although at this point most of them are pretty
far removed from the source of their divine blood.  But not only can
Usagi trace her lineage directly back to Dasma, she's basically been
elevated to the position of being the Dark Lady's daughter."
     "But what does that mean?" I asked.  "Practically, I mean?"
     "That's the problem," Rei sighed, giving Usagi an exasperated
glance.  "I'm not sure.  There have been Deitra and Deidar in the past,
notably during the Age of Heroes.  They usually acted as the voice of
their respective gods here on Gaia, heading up holy orders, leading
believers into battle, that sort of thing."
     "So Dasma could ask Usagi to go all holy war on the White
Order?" I asked, incredulous.
     "What?  She wouldn't!" Usagi exclaimed.  Rei just stared at her,
and as Usagi looked around the room, she found similar expressions
directed her way.
    "Why not?  Because you two are linked by blood?" Rei asked gently.
"Usagi, she's a goddess.  They have their own rules, their own ways of
doing things.  She's not going to take the virtual erasure of her influence
on Gaia lying down."
     "Yeah, but, I mean, well, we're going to reform the Sisterhood!"
she declared, squeezing Rei's hand and smiling widely.  "Make them
legit and everything.  Right?"
     "She seemed pretty fond of you," Rei said, shaking her head at
Usagi's optimism.  "Let's hope we can talk her out of any retribution
against Alieva's people."
     Oh.  "Hey, it's funny you should mention Alieva's people," I
said, trying to look like I wasn't about to add to the pile of bad news.
"Isn't it, Minako?"
     "Sure," she agreed.  "Because Ranma and me ran into
everybody's favourite Vestra today."
     "Uh-oh," Makoto said.  "What happened?"
     "Um," I said.  "Well, see, we went to meet Peorth at the fountain,
only she wasn't there again.  But a whole bunch of In ..."
     "Hey!" Minako announced, jumping off the counter and fairly
throwing herself into my lap.  "Let me tell it!  With sound effects!"  I
yelped, pinwheeling my arms to try and keep the chair from toppling over
backwards.  I found her glaring at me, and realised my mistake.
     "Anyway," she said breezily, turning to the others.  "A whole whack
of Crusaders showed up and tried to, shall we say, detain us without legal
process and all that."
     "What?" Usagi cried.  "Why would they do that?"
     "Because they think we're in league with the Sisterhood,"
Minako informed her.
     "Which we kind of are, now," I added.  Minako elbowed me in
the ribs.
     "Aaaaaanyway," Minako went on, "further trouble was averted
by the timely arrival of the local constabulary in the person of ..."
     "Mamo-chan!"
     "Yup.  And his partner, who coincidentally we met the other
night."
     "The problem is Peorth," I said.
     "They've got her," Minako added.  "It seems she ended up in or
near the White Order's temple when we came through from Shadow.
They think she's working with the Sisterhood, probably because she
emerged from Shadow, and then we showed up to meet her, and they
think WE'RE working with the Sisterhood, so basically everything just
confirms their giant conspiracy theory."
     "Oh, wonderous," Makoto groaned.
     "This is bad.," Ami agreed.
     "Can't we just go to the temple?" Usagi asked.  "Explain to them
what happened?"
     "Usagi," Minako said gravely.  "I love you dearly, but come on.
A Vestra saw us with Rei Darkeyes, famed enemy of the White Order.
They're not just going to take our word for it that we're innocent, and so
is Peorth."
     "Go to the Queen," Ami said.  "You can get a message to her,
right?"
     "Yeah," I said.  "But the problem is we don't have any proof, and
Carlina made it clear that if we tried to go through official channels, not
only would the Order deny everything, but Peorth might just disappear."
     "Oh, she's bluffing," Usagi said dismissively.  "They wouldn't
do that!"
     "Usagi, as the Sisterhood became more and more desperate, the
White Order had to become harsher in order to defend against them.  We
shouldn't rule anything out."  Rei didn't seem happy to be the one telling
Usagi that, but I guessed it was better than using the term Inquisition
with her.
     "They expect us to come rescue her," I said.
     "Wait a sec," Makoto broke in, holding her hands up.  "We don't
even know this woman.  Are we seriously going to add to everything on
our plate by going up against the White Order?"
     "I am," Minako said simply.  "If it wasn't for her, I wouldn't
have gotten out of Shadow.  I don't know what her story is, but I owe
her."
     "And she's got answers," I said.  "Face it, all this Dasma stuff
aside, the vampire is still our biggest problem.  Wynneth wants the key,
and we don't know why.  But maybe Peorth does.  At the very least, she
knows more than we do, and we need as much info as we can get if we're
going to take on this vamp."
     "If Dasma finds Wynneth, she's going to stop being a problem
pretty damned quick," Rei told us.  "But I see what you're saying,
Ranma.  What do you intend to do?"
     "Well, I've got an idea," I admitted.  "But I don't think you're
going to like it."

***

     The fabric of Aethyr rippled around her as she came through, and
Dasma fought the urge to grimace at the sensation of gossamer tendrils of
this place slithering across her skin.  Her kind shunned Aethyr whenever
possible.  It was a mad place, unstable and chaotic, and dangerous even
to them.
     She looked around, senses questing for some sign of the one she
sought.  There was none, but that would certainly not be a problem.  Her
arrival here would have been marked.  If he wanted to be found, she
would find him.  If not, then no amount of searching would suffice.
     For the moment the sun shone brightly and a gentle breeze sent
silken ripples rushing through the long purples grasses.  An idyllic scene,
to be certain.  At least on the surface.
     Dasma was not fooled.  There were plenty of threats lurking here.
     Banri pulsed lightly upon her finger, and she stroked the ebon
ring reassuringly with her thumb.  She did not like coming here any more
than Banri did.  Still, she needed answers, so she oriented herself and
started walking.
     The abyss was nearby, but she wasn't inclined to visit it.  The
cold, crystal Osiren was probably still there, and she was not anxious to
be reminded of her failure.  Damn her sister, anyway.  How had events
gone so wrong in the time she'd been sealed?  Madness, catastrophe,
chaos.  So many delicate threads had been tangled, and no one had even
tried to set them right.  She was filled with a foreboding such as she had
not felt in a very long time.
     As she walked, the landscape rippled and changed in places, the
path under her feet becoming a wide road of closely interlocked black
stone.  A warm breeze blew back her hair, and she breathed in the wild
scents.  Aethyr had its beauty, that she could not deny.  But she knew,
better than any, that beauty could hide wicked snares.
     Something tugged at her awareness, off to the left.  She
recognised it immediately.  The Grim.  Its honeyed song resonated in the
fabric of the air itself, and she immediately turned away, putting distance
between her and the border of the wastes around that particular horror.  If
it managed to snare her, not even she would be able to escape its greedy
grasp.
     She walked for a time, tension easing as the lilting call of the
Grim lessened and finally fell silent in her mind.  It had sensed her
presence, of course, and lusted after her, but it could not give chase.  If
she could not be lured in, it would have to wait for other, less wary, prey.
And wait it would.  Of the little known of the thing that resided within
the Grim, the one thing that stood out was its patience.
     As Dasma shook herself from her reverie, she looked down and
realised she was wearing a light breastplate of black and silver, with
matching accoutrements from her boots to her cloak.  It was an ensemble
she was most familiar with, despite not having worn it for a very long
time.  That had been a different time, of course, a time when she'd still
believed the mistakes that had been made could be undone.  She'd been
younger then, and headstrong, but she experienced a pang of
uncharacteristic wistfulness as she realised that she missed those days.
And the companions she'd shared them with.
     Nostalgia, she thought ruefully as she banished the garb of
Dasma the Wild, Coronn's Huntress.  A luxury I do not have.  Dwelling
on the past will not change it, and the present demands my attention now.
     "A telling slip, little godling."
     Although he had managed to get close to her completely
undetected, she managed not to react to his voice.  Not that he would be
fooled, of course.
     Had she not known better, she would have thought him a man of
indeterminate age, powerfully built but not bulky, dark hair swept back
from sharp features.  She did know better, though, and so she inclined her
head respectfully.
     "It has been a long time, Dragon Guardian," she said, her tone
respectful.
     "For good reason, little godling."  His tone was bland, without anger
or malice.  Still, she knew she was on shaky ground.  "I do not welcome
guests."
     "I apologise for the intrusion, Dragon, but I did not know where
else to turn.  Chaos threatens to overwhelm the mortal realm, and power
runs amok beneath the surface of things.  After being sealed for more
than a century, I would have expected some changes in the mortal world,
but not like this."
     "You speak of Larnis Tia?"
     "That place was dangerous enough, brooding in sullen madness,"
Dasma said, fighting the urge to shiver.  "But not only has our ancient
capital appeared in Saeni, the Elders have done nothing about it!"
     "Larnis Tia remains inviolate," Dragon rumbled, crossing his
arms.  Dasma caught glimpses of a metallic gleam under the loose
sleeves of his dark silk shirt, and along the exposed side of his neck.  She
could see Gar in the lines of his face, but only in broad strokes.  This man
would never be the trickster rogue that his son was.  "The border is
unstable.  Her secrets are safe from mortals."
     "And from us, I assume.  That city was abandoned for a reason."
     "And now it stands, a monument to the terrible hubris of those
who would be gods."
     "I understand what we did," Dasma retorted, mouth drawing into
a thin line.  "We destroyed the natural balance of this place because we
were told it was necessary.  We were the last, and this the final refuge of
all that once was.  I came to believe that we were wrong, Dragon
Guardian.  That is why I joined the rebels.  That is why I refuse to cower
in Nikhien, slamming the door shut on our duties whenever catastrophe
strikes.  That is why I wear this sign."  She touched the black crescent on
her forehead lightly.
     "And that," Dragon said softly, "is why we are having this
conversation."
     That surprised her.  She hadn't thought he would care about the
difference between the gods and their Fallen kin.  To him, they were all
just a waste of time.  Of course, it hadn't always been that way.  Which
was why she dared hope he might be helpful.
     "Things have gone badly awry," she said at last.  "Whatever I
think of the others, their power has served to maintain a delicate
equilibrium beneath the surface of things, a necessary counterbalance to
some of the chaos unleashed so long ago.  Now I find AsterGate gone."
     "As you pointed out, your kin are wont to cower in their sanctuary
while their followers cry in the darkness."  Dragon's contempt was
unmistakable.
     "The gate is not sealed," Dasma told him, fighting the urge to
shout.  "It is gone. There is no sign of it."
     The guardian's crimson eyes narrowed, but he gave no other sign
that the news perturbed him.  And perhaps it didn't.
     Frankly, it scared the hell out of her.
     "Some force was set loose to flow through the planes, Dragon.  The
same force that set me free has had other effects, whose depth and scope
are still unknown.  If it could seal AsterGate ... or destroy it ..."
     "Ask me," he said, looming over her, his face impassive.  "Ask
me the question you came to ask.  Time grows short."
     So, the old wyrm was running out of patience?  Good enough.
     "Gar blames you for what happened back then.  I know better.  I take
after my mother, and so I know she made her own decision to defy the
old laws and help you, and so she died without regrets.  But I need to
know what happened when the Time Gate was activated that day if I'm
to have any chance of restoring a semblance of balance.  What came
through?  What killed three of our most powerful brethren?"
     This was the crux of things.  Coronn had never told them what he
might have seen that day, although she had remembered all the things he
had told her.  And Coronn, as far as she knew, had been the only survivor
other than Dragon.  He had told her once that the Time Gate couldn't
solve their problems, it WAS the problem, but she really didn't
understand what that meant.  So she dared to ask the one being who
might know what was happening.
     And, much to her astonishment, he answered her.
     "I was a fool," he rumbled.  "There are reasons why it is forbidden to
tamper with the time stream.  The complexities, the risks, are beyond
measure.  I had thought that the risk was worth it.  To have a Warden
back, I would break my oath and one of the most sacred directives of my
kind.  And so my failure as a Guardian was complete."
     "But you did not fail," Dasma pressed.  "The gate worked."
     "It is not that failure to which I refer, Dasma.  Once the gate was
activated, the time stream was opened."
     "Something came through the gate," she breathed, watching him
carefully.
     "No.  Something tried to GO through."
     "I ... do not understand."
     "Listen well, little godling.  The moment that the Gate was activated,
they came, drawn by it.  Almost as if they had been waiting.  Almost as if
they knew.  And the Gate synchronised, not with the past, but with the
distant future."
     "They?"
     "Outsiders," he said, and her blood froze in her veins.
     "No," she said numbly.  "No, there couldn't be any of them here.
They couldn't have survived the breaking of the links."
     "They are not as we are," he told her, vague menace radiating
from his muscular form.  "They came to the gate.  They attacked us,
trying to force their way through.  And the gate reacted to them,
synchronised with the future, little godling, because of them.  They were
here.  And they were there."
     "There.  The future."  Dasma felt lightheaded, nauseous.  No.  This
couldn't be.  "You mean now?"
     "It is difficult to say."
     "But ... but why didn't you tell us?  All of us?  We could ..."
     "Have done what?"  Dragon's impassive glare showed no sign of
regret, or fear, or doubt.  He watched her struggle with the knowledge he
had given her without any sign of emotion.  "I do not blame you for your
confusion, little godling.  I did not understand, either, not until it was too
late.  My actions created some sort of temporal incursion.  It is possible
that, by allowing them a glimpse of the time stream into the future, they
gained the knowledge to change it, to open this sphere to Outside.  We
managed to destroy them, though not before they did great harm.  Yet
still, the damage to the timeline seems to persist."
     "Then change it!"  Dasma stopped, drew a breath.  Panicking
would accomplish nothing.  She had to remain calm.  "You must do
something, Dragon."
     "I was the agent of the breach.  It is entirely possible, even likely,
that everything I have done has led to this.  That is the insidious nature of
tampering with time itself.  I believe there is still a chance, else I would
not be speaking to you now.  But any action I might take could very well
cause more damage.  Forget the gate.  It can only lead to your
destruction."
     "I must know what is to come!" she cried.
     "No.  You must not know.  You must act without foreknowledge.
Any other path will doom you."
     "How much time do we have?  Tell me that, at least!"
     Dragon's form shimmered with light, and then she was dwarfed
by the hulking form of the Guardian's body blocking out the sun.
     "I TELL YOU THIS ONE THING, LITTLE GODLING.  THE
PAST IS CATCHING UP WITH ALL OF US.  MANY THINGS
HAVE CAUSE TO BEAR GRUDGES AGAINST YOU AND YOUR
KIND, AND BEING FALLEN WILL HARDLY DISSUADE THEIR
FURY."
     Wind buffeted her as Dragon spread his huge wings, and the
great wyrm took off with a speed and grace that seemed incongruous in a
creature so large.  Within seconds, Dragon had soared away and was lost
to sight, and she was alone in Aethyr Realm.
     Her head swam with what she had been told.  Outsiders?  Had
they somehow survived the cataclysmic severing of the hyperlinks and
made their way to this sphere?  Or had they somehow used the Time
Gate to come here from the moment of their defeat?  Was it true?  Had
Dragon Guardian unwittingly become the agency by which the Outsiders
had gained access to the last remaining sphere?
     Was that the true reason he refused to involve himself in the
affairs of the world?
     She just stood there for long moments, unable to decide what to
do next.  Perhaps the Outsiders would not arrive for centuries.  Perhaps
the foreknowledge that they would again threaten this sphere had altered
the timeline further, and they would never arrive.
     Damn!  Dragon was right, this notion of time was seductive, but
ultimately counterproductive.  Much was awry now, and there was no
sign that the Outsiders were behind any of it.  She still needed to take
action to try to restore balance.
     And she needed to catch this vampire.  Before the bitch died, she
would reveal the details of the spell she'd performed.  Perhaps that would
shed some light on ...
     Banri pulsed on her finger.  Hard.  And she heard a snatch of a
tune, carried on the warm wind.
     Singing?
     She spun, eyes narrowed.  No, it couldn't be.  She'd never seen
her personally, but the stories persisted, that Illianka's spirit still
wandered the planes, unable to rest.  Some said that the construction of
the Time Gate, far from rescuing her, had made it impossible for her to
truly die.
     But of course, there was nothing there.
     "Deandra Asimov."
     She whirled, Banri clamping down on her finger and remaining
constricted.  Behind her, a young girl, her hair a veil of spun gold in the
diffuse sunlight.  Her eyes were not those of any girl, though.  Those
were eyes that had seen mysteries that would drive even a goddess mad.
     "Warden," she breathed.  Stupid, of course.  Illianka wasn't
aware of her, not really.  She was an echo, a ghost.
     So why did she use your name? she asked herself.
     "She has severed the Raedenbinding."
     The gentle wind turned cold.  Dasma shook her head carefully.
The girl wasn't even looking at her, gazing off into a distance no living
being could comprehend.  And what she was saying was impossible.
Inconceivable.  She ...
     Illianka's gaze flicked to her, and for one heart-stopping moment,
it was as though she was looking into the eyes of a living Warden.
Living and aware.
     "Run," the Warden said.
     Dasma blinked.
     "Warden?" she asked cautiously.  "Are you ...?"
     "Deandra, you must run.  Now!"
     Banri leapt from her finger to land at her feet in a hissing crouch.
But the lithe weapon spared no glance for Illianka, staring off at the
distant treeline.
     "Mistresssss," she hissed, her body trembling.  "Something comesss."
     Dasma turned.  Something was moving through Aethyr, causing
ripples in the fabric of the place with its passage.  Something terrible.
     (MANY THINGS HAVE CAUSE TO BEAR GRUDGES
AGAINST YOU AND YOUR KIND)
     No.
     "Deandra, hurry!"
     "Mistresss!  It comessss!  Abomination!"
     "Banri, to me!"
     Banri reformed on her finger as the distant treeline shimmered,
then parted like rotten cloth, and something tore its way free of the trees,
something huge, dark.
     And familiar.
     It saw her and bayed, a mad, raw sound.
     She ran.
 

***

     "I'm afraid I don't understand your objection," Vestra Cardine,"
Chief Amagi said, leaning back in her chair.
     "I beg your pardon?"  Cardina was a tall woman, her shoulder-
length hair shot through with silver.  She had a face that wore cold
disapproval well.  Like now, for instance.  "Are you telling me, Chief
Inspector, that your department has no issue with the attack on our
temple?  I wonder how your superiors would react to that."
     Mamoru shot a quick glance at Yu, who remained impassive.
Carlina hadn't been exaggerating about bringing heat over the incident at
the fountain.  They'd been hauled into the chief's office pretty damned
quick.  Kaede Amagi, however, was a seasoned campaigner and not
easily fazed.
     "Vestra, I was simply referring to the fact that my officers took
custody of the two individuals in question," Amagi said with a trace of
world-weariness.  "Your people were going to turn them over to us
anyway, correct?  Since you suspect them of a crime?  I mean, since the
White Order has no authority to hold suspects for any reason, you were
going to perform a citizen's arrest and then turn those two over to the
legal authorities.  Which, Vestra, DC Chiba and DS Otohari are."
     "Then," Cardina said in a low, frosty voice, "where are they?"
     "Your Crusaders declined to provide any evidence that could be
used to hold the individuals in question," Amagi said simply.  "If they
would like to come in and give a statement of the details of the crime, we
could pick up the pair in question.  Although, to be fair, only one was
accused of anything, as I understand it.  The young man simply acted to
protect his companion."
     Vestra Cardina tugged sharply at her immaculate white robes,
drawing herself to her full height and glaring down at Amagi.  "You are
making a grave error in judgement, Chief Inspector.  Siding with scum
like this makes me wonder about your own temple allegiances."
     Uh-oh.  Mamoru shifted his feet nervously, noting that Yu was
trying very hard not to grin.  Mamoru was of the opinion that the Vestra
had just walked up to the line and jumped right over it.
     Kaede Amagi, apparently, was of the same opinion.  She very
deliberately placed her hands on the desk and rose, and while she was
nowhere near as tall as Cardina, she wore her mantle of authority as
easily as the Vestra.
     "Now you listen to me," Amagi began, keeping her tone even.  "I
am an officer of the law, and I will not stand for innuendo, rumour, or
thinly veiled threats toward me or the people under my command."
     "You will be ..."
     "Shut it!" Amagi barked, surprising the Vestra into silence.
"This black bag internecine temple nonsense may play with the Council
of Temples, but whatever latitude the palace has accorded you ends when
you usurp the authority of my officers.  Bringing an armed squad into a
crowded square and attacking an individual on some trumped up guilt by
association nonsense is bad enough, but refusing orders from my officers
to desist?  That won't play, Vestra.  I won't have it in my division.  Are
we clear?"
     "Perhaps you won't be so cavalier about our concerns," Cardina
said tersely, "when they come from the palace."
     "Ah, yes, the palace," Amagi said, straightening up and adjusting
her tie.  "I have a letter here from the Captain of the Royal Guard for the
Lady Lumine."  She picked the plain envelope up off her cluttered desk,
and Mamoru saw that it was of heavy, creamy paper, and had an intricate
seal.  "Basically vouching for this Mistress V.  Apparently, she saved the
Queen's life on the night of Baniesti.  Her Majesty has requested that,
should the White Order, or the Crusade ..."  Here Amagi put a delicate
but unmistakable emphasis on the word, causing the Vestra's thin mouth
to twitch slightly.  "... wish to pursue this matter, they should take it up
with her directly.  She will be happy to entertain the Lady Lumine's
request for an audience as soon as is humanly possible, although current
crises of course make it difficult to place matters of unfounded
accusations at the head of the line."
     Jaw clenched, the Vestra reached out and snatched the envelope
from Amagi's hand.
     "One other thing," Amaagi said as the Vestra wheeled sharply.
"We are investigating reports of unusual activity at an estate on Regal
Heights.  If reports of Crusader activity at the site are confirmed, I trust
we will have your full cooperation?"
     "The White Order is always pleased to cooperate with the
police," Cardina gritted in what Mamoru judged to be one of the least
sincere statements he had ever heard.
     "I am pleased to hear that," Amagi said blandly to the woman's
back as she stormed out of the office, slamming the door on her way out.
Sighing deeply, Amagi dropped into her chair and put her face in her
hands.
     "Oh, Chief, that was brilliant," Yu breathed.  "I really ..."
     "Yusaku.  Mamoru.  What is the rule?"  She didn't look up at
them, speaking in a weary voice.
     "Um," Yu said.
     "Don't involve you in political bullshit," Mamoru said.
     "Departmental, local, or temple political bullshit," Yu clarified.
     "Exactly.  I'm going to be dealing with repercussions for months.
I've got a pension to worry about, you know."
     "Sorry, Chief," Yu said.
     "Yeah, we're sorry," Mamoru said.  "But we couldn't let it
slide."
     "Ah, you did the right thing, boys," she told them, waving her hand
negligently.  "Gods, I hate this kind of bullshit.  It's a lot easier when they
just go around screwing each other.  Nobody complains, as long as they
don't blow anything up."
     "Oh, yeah, that thing with the Viernan restaurant!" Yu beamed.
     "Chief, how did you get the palace to issue a statement about the
incident so quickly?" Mamoru asked.  He had a suspicion that he knew
the source, but he wanted to be sure.
     "Someone went to Rystenhaos and put a bug in Captain Griev's
ear, I'm told.  A blonde girl in an outrageous outfit.  Sounds like your
type, Yu.  Anyway, the letter got here just before the Vestra.  Made
things a little easier, but off the record, boys, let's play it cool around the
temples for a while, okay?  The palace doesn't want too many waves if it
can be helped.  Things are bad enough as it is.  And whatever happened
at Alieva's temple that night may not have caused any casualties, but it's
got them madder than a bunch of hornets."
     "We're all about discretion, Chief!" Yu grinned.
     "Go away, Yu."
     "You got it, Chief!"  They left the office, and Mamoru saw
Amagi opening the drawer where she kept a bottle of whiskey as they
closed it behind them.
     "Tough to be the person who balances politics and the job,"
Mamoru said sympathetically.
     "Yeah, well, better her than us," Yu sighed.  "So our hot little
leather vixen decided to return the favour, huh?  I think she likes me."
     "Of course you do."
     "You didn't mention the death of the Sisterhood, I noticed."
     "It only would have made the Vestra happy," Mamoru sighed.
"I'll fill the chief in later.  As an unverifiable rumour, it'll only be so
useful, but she might be able to use it as a chip in the eternal political
game."
     "Ah, such poetry.  I do love a man with a poetic soul.  Want to go for
a drink?  Meaghan's got a shift tonight, and I need to blow off some
steam."
     "Next time, partner.  I've got to get home, check on Usagi.  You
wouldn't believe the stuff that girl gets up to when I'm not around."
     "Women," Yu grinned
     "Yeah, man.  You said a mouthful."

***

     "You were wise to come to me," Yurina said.  I didn't know
about that.  Wise seemed to have taken a look at this house and packed
its bags, deciding to head for calmer waters.  It was a little surreal,
watching the Maidens bustle around this wing of the house like a thirteen
year old boy's dream of maid service.  Not that I'd know, or anything.
Just speculating.
     But anyway.
     We sat with Yurina in an open lounge of some sort at the far end
of the second floor.  The two couches had been dusted off for us, and a
table had been located and placed between them.  If this dark sex
priestess thing didn't work out, these girls could make a mint in the
housecleaning biz.  They were pretty damned efficient, I had to give them
that.
     "So you know all about the Vestra and her operation?" Minako
asked.  She sat next to me, her hand on my arm, and it seemed to me she
glared a little when any of the Maidens passed by our little conference.
     "Oh, yes," Yurina said, snapping her fan open with a languid
flick of her wrist and waving it in slow, lazy arcs as she spoke.  "Carlina
Val Cassanda made quite a name for herself with her anti-Sisterhood
campaign.  She proved remarkably capable for one so young.  The
Nightmistress could tell you more than I, of course.  They were, once
upon a time, the best of enemies."  Yurina's rosebud lips curled into a
secretive smile as she brought the fan in front of her face, and I
wondered, not for the first time, how this Nightmistress thing was going
to work out for Rei.  These girls had to resent having a so-called traitor in
charge.
     "Our concern is the present," Rei said briskly.
     "Indeed.  Perhaps if I knew the specifics of the plan, I could be of
more assistance."
     "The Inquisition has taken a prisoner.  They believe her to be an
associate of the Sisterhood's, involved in the Siren's Breath attack."
     "That," Yurina said gravely, "is very bad."
     "That's why we need to sneak into the temple," I said.  "Can you
help us?"
     "The good news," Yurina murmured, giving me one of those
little smiles of hers, "is that you do not need to breach temple security."
     "We don't?"
     "So," Rei said.  "They are still using the Harbourview facility."
     "No," Yurina told her.  "Some official scrutiny came down upon
that place, and it had to be abandoned.  Their new headquarters is on
Dart Street."
     "Dart Street?  That's the financial district," Minako frowned.
"Why go all the way over there?  Wouldn't the temple be more secure?"
     "It allows them a certain degree of ... autonomy," Yurina
informed her, a shadow of emotion flickering across her composed
features.  "Away from official inquiry.  And it allows the White Order
deniability, should the, shall we say, excesses of the Inquisition be
unearthed."
     "But an office tower?" Minako pressed.
     "Hiding in plain sight," Rei said, nodding to Yurina.  "Not the
first time they've done that.  What do you know of the building?"
     "The above ground floors are used by various fronts for the White
Order," Yurina said.  "But the real action is below ground.  Several sub-
levels that are not on any floor plan for that tower, containing an
armoury, interrogation rooms, training areas, and of course, holding
cells.  The building appears ordinary, but once inside, security is quite
robust.  A frontal assault is foolhardy, at best.  Unless you intend to
petition the Dark Lady to lead the attack ..."  She trailed off, a hopeful
gleam in her eye.
     "We're not going to bother her with this," I told Yurina.  In fact, Rei
had told us she had no idea how to contact Dasma.  Apparently, there
wasn't a dark goddess hotline or anything.  I thought about suggesting a
signal to be beamed into the sky, like Batman's, but I didn't think anyone
would appreciate the idea.  Or would ever have heard of Batman.
     "Bring me everything you have on the tower, Yurina," Rei
commanded.
     "Of course, Nightmistress."  Yurina bowed to her, a supple
movement as graceful as a dancer's, then rose and walked away with
effortless poise.  Minako elbowed me in the ribs none too gently.
     "Take a picture," she suggested.  I flushed.  I hadn't been staring.
Really.
     "Do you really think this'll work?" I asked, to change the
subject.
     "It was your idea," Rei pointed out.
     "Asking the Maidens for info on where the Inquisition was
holding Peorth was my idea," I clarified.  "I'm talking about our
diversion."
     "Truthfully, I'm not thrilled at the idea," Rei admitted.
     "Usagi was up for it," Minako pointed out.  "Hells, I wish I was
doing it."
     "No, you don't," Rei shot back.  "You want to break into that
building."
     "Well, yeah," Minako sighed.  "Choices."
     "Carlina's expecting us to try something," I said.  "That's why
we need to throw them for a loop.  But the longer this takes, the more
chance we're going to get into a serious fight with these guys.  And the
way they fight, somebody could get killed."
     "That's not going to happen," Rei assured me.  Now that we'd
decided to tackle this problem head-on, she seemed to have put all her
doubts aside.  "These are classic Sisterhood tactics.  I think we can pull
off a few tricks that will tip the scales in our favour.  Divert the enemy's
attention, give them the attack they're expecting, and slip Peorth out the
back door before they are any the wiser.  If this new building is as
recently upgraded as Yurina says, that may play into our hands."
     "You're enjoying this," Minako said slowly.  "Aren't you?"
     "Nonsense," Rei sniffed.  "We need Peorth's knowledge of the
key ..."
     "You miss doing this," Minako whispered into Rei's ear.  "Come
on, admit it."
     Rei was saved from having to answer by the arrival of one of the
Maidens, one that I recognised.  Bella flounced across the room in a
cloud of black curls and expensive perfume, stopping in front of Rei and
kneeling demurely.
     "Nightmistress," she said, bowing with her hands flat on the floor
in front of her.  The girl's full, bee-stung lips caressed each word she
spoke in a way that was very nearly indecent.  "All personal quarters are
now ready for occupancy, and the wing's main bath has been cleaned and
stocked."
     "Bella, Yurina is perfectly capable of reporting to me," Rei said.
     "Indeed, Nightmistress.  I was wondering if we should begin on
the rest of the house?"
     "You are to remain in this wing, Bella, unless I say otherwise."
     Bella pouted.  "Forgive my boldness, Nightmistress, but the night
is yet young and I was hoping to offer my service to Mistress Usagi."
Her voice had dropped to a throaty purr, and I felt heat creep up my
body.  And her attention wasn't even focussed on me.
     "Bella," Rei said sharply.  "You forget yourself."
     "Of course, Nightmistress," Bella breathed, eyes wide.  "I meant
no disrespect.  I merely wish to sate Mistress Usagi's desires as only one
of our Order might."
     "Bella," Rei said, eyes narrowed.  "I assure you that Usagi's desires
are in good hands.  I will inform you if your services are required.  Leave
us."
     The petite girl rose and bowed deeply to Rei, barely inclined her head
in our direction, then moved away with a slow, sensuous strut.
     "What are we, invisible?" Minako groused.  "Geez!  And what a
saucy little thing.  I can't imagine trying to horn in on the Nightmistress's
territory is something she would have gotten away with under
previous management."
     "You'd be surprised," Rei sighed, pinching the bridge of her
nose.  "Bella often pushes the bounds of propriety."
     "Why?" I asked.
     "Because she wishes to be disciplined," Rei said.
     "Oh."
     "If that's her game," Minako said with a dark look at the spot
where the girl had disappeared, "I'll be happy to indulge her."
     "Minako, do you ever listen to me?" Rei asked.  "Teruan?
Verithe-tainted kisses?  Bessin root oil?  Ringing any bells?"
     "If she just wants a spanking ..." Minako began.
     "The relationship between the Maidens and the Sisters is
complicated," Rei said, shaking her head.  "They repeatedly prove
themselves worthy to command the loyalty of the Maidens.  If you tried
to discipline one of them, they'd do their best to turn the tables on you.
And if they did, they wouldn't show you any mercy.  The power struggle,
the give and take between these women, is a delicate dance.  It isn't to be
treated lightly."
     "All the more reason for her to keep her claws out of Usagi,"
Minako said, her voice nearly a growl.
     "She wasn't threatening Usagi," Rei told her.  "The rules are different
for her.  She is, after all, Dasma's Deitra, and the girls would happily
crawl over broken glass to kneel at her feet.  Bella was just overstepping
her bounds enough that I'd have cause to rein her in."
     "So she doesn't want to sleep with Usagi?" I asked.
     "Oh, she does," Rei corrected me.  "They all do.  Which may get
complicated ..."
     No kidding.  This was all we needed, more sexual politics.  Well,
okay, I would have no idea how to handle it, but maybe Rei could work
it out so that everybody was happy.  To me, though, it just sounded like
things had gotten worse.  Oh, wait.  When Mamoru got home, then things
would officially get worse.
     "So Usagi doesn't have to worry, but we do?" Minako asked.
She seemed irritated, and I thought I knew why.  Bella had all but
ignored her, and if there was one thing Minako hated, it was being
ignored.
     "Only if you try to act like one of the Sisters," Rei said, fixing
Minako with an arch stare.  "The girls will do what I tell them, Minako,
but I'm not about to create the perception that I'd allow outsiders to have
the same privileges over them that their Sisters did.  That would be
wrong.  You do see that, right?"
     "Well, when you put it that way, I guess I do," Minako sighed
noisily.
     "Everybody just needs to keep a little distance until we figure this
thing out," Rei said firmly.  "And keeping both groups separated is a
good start."
     Yurina came back in moments later, carrying a black laptop
computer.  I'd been expecting rolled-up blueprints or old, yellowed scrolls
or something, I wasn't sure why.  There was no reason that priestesses
shouldn't be high-tech.
     "Nightmistress," Yurina said.  "Here are the files."  She placed
the laptop gently on the table and turned it, sliding it to Rei.  Every
movement she made was carefully controlled.  Watching her, I could see
that she did have strength, and skill.  That fan was sharp, and according
to Rei Yurina was lethal with it.  Not on my level, but far more
dangerous than she looked.  Still, Rei leaned over the table, putting
herself in range of an attack by the Black Rose.  I wondered if she was so
utterly confident in the authority that Dasma had granted her, or if it was
a calculated move meant to show that she trusted Yurina.  Or didn't fear
her.
     Damn.  Trying to out double and triple think these girls gave me
a headache.  Rei took the computer and Yurina just smiled, so all was
well.  For now.
     "Minako?"
     "Okay," Minako said, clicking on parts of the file and scanning the
images and data that appeared.  "Yeah, uh-huh.  This is good.  I can
work with this.  Damn, you've got a lot of detail here, Yurina.  This must
have been hard to come by."
     "We have our ways," Yurina said, lifting her chin slightly.
     "I'll just bet you do."
     "Can you do it?" I asked before Yurina could respond to
Minako's barb.
     "I think so," Minako told her.  "Yeah, if they're holding her here,
where this file shows the most secure cells, then we should be able to get
in and out in the time we planned.  If Ami's ready to go, and if our
diversion works."
     "If I may," Yurina said, folding her fan and running her
lacquered nails along its length.  "Perhaps it would be advantageous to
have one of the girls along.  We have dealt with this sort of thing before,
and we know a great deal about the Inquisition and their methods."
     "No, Yurina," Rei said firmly.  "This isn't an infiltration, it's a
hit and run operation.  And frankly, I don't think the girls are in the best
frame of mind for this, not with all the shocks of the last few days."
     "As you wish."  If Yurina was upset by the refusal, I couldn't
tell.
     "Minako, why don't you and Ranma get those specs to Ami?"
Rei said.  "See what she can put together for us?  I have a few loose ends
to tie up."
     "Sure thing," Minako said, folding up the computer.  We stood,
and Yurina inclined her head politely as we left.
     "Okay, this is weird, isn't it?" I asked when we were safely out of
the wing.
     "You mean going from fighting the Sisterhood, to trying to save
them, to working with them?" Minako asked., grinning.  "Nah.  That's
life in the big leagues, sport.  Everything changes.  You just gotta keep
on your toes."
     "Sure.  Just all part of the big picture," I said with a knowing
nod.
     "Exactly.  Which you'd know if you were omnidirectional, like a
goddess."
     "Okay, stop that."
     She giggled, and I felt warm.  Comfortable.  Okay, maybe we
hadn't stopped the vamp, and we hadn't saved the Sisterhood, but we'd
managed to save somebody, right?  And this whole thing was strange, but
who was to say that it might not turn out okay?
     I'd seen more unbelievable things in the last week.
     We found Ami in her room, and she took the computer and began
coaxing information out of it in a way that was like watching a skilled
musician play an instrument.  The light from the screen gleamed on her
glasses as she worked, and she nibbled her lower lip thoughtfully.
     "I can do it," she said at last.  "I have just the thing, and the level of
integration and the sophistication of their systems is actually to our
advantage.  But you'll have to get to one of these ports, here or here, to
input the program.  Once it's hooked in, just set it loose, it'll do the rest
automatically.  I can put the control element in your compact, but you
won't be able to monitor things in real time, not with the interference still
operating.  You'll have to plug in periodically."
     "How long will it last?" Minako asked, leaning over Ami's
shoulder, her hands on the back of the other girl's chair.  Her long hair
spilled forward, brushing Ami's shoulder, and I knew better than to think
that was accidental.
     "Oh, they'll be neutralised for at least an hour," Ami said.  "Longer if
they don't have someone really high level on site.  My attack program
incorporates elements of things I guarantee they've never seen before."
     "Well, we won't need near that long," I said.  "So we're good."
     "Are we?"  Ami turned, brushing Minako's hair off her shoulder
lightly.  "I mean, you know what we're doing, right?  Teaming up with
the Sisterhood, or what's left of them, against the White Order?  Is this
really the right thing to do?"
     "Ami," Minako said, squatting down to look the other girl in the
eye.  "Listen, I'm no great fan of these girls either.  I haven't forgotten
that Yurina's drugged kiss left me open to a shit-kicking from her boss,
and exposed my identity to boot.  But I trust Rei and Usagi, and they
think we need to give these girls a chance.  They could turn out like Rei,
you know."
     "Or they could revert to type," Ami pointed out.
     "One disaster at a time.  This is going to make the plan totally
do-able, sweetheart.  You're the best."
     "I wish I was going to be down there with you," Ami sighed,
blushing lightly as Minako tousled her dark hair.  "But I need to provide
the cover.  I can't believe Usagi agreed to be the diversion."
     "I can," Minako grinned.  "She figures this way, she can ensure
nobody gets hurt.  Which is a big part of the plan.  We do this right, all
we do is embarrass the Inquisition which, from what I've seen of their
operation, is kind of a plus."
     "I guess."  Ami seemed uncertain, but we were committed.
     And I was with Minako on this one.  The more I found out about
this Inquisition, the less I liked them.  Peorth had just gotten caught up in
events that were out of her control.  She was no enemy of the White
Order.  Well, as far as I knew.
     "All right," Ami sighed.  "Give me the compact.  Let's get
started."
     I watched as Minako handed Ami the gleaming metal crescent.
A few hours, I thought.  Just a few hours, and then I'll finally be meeting
somebody who can give me some answers.
     No way was this going to go smoothly.  Fate just kept throwing
obstacles into my path.  But that was okay.
     I wasn't going to stop throwing them back anytime soon.

***

     "In here, Nightmistress."  Yurina led Rei into the room she had
claimed as her own.  It was clean, and the large, sumptuous bed had been
made up with fresh linens.  There wasn't much in the way of furnishings,
just a chair and a small table with a mirror, a framed landscape hanging
on one wall.
     Rei watched as Yurina crossed the room and opened a small chest
that sat at the end of the bed.  The contents were arranged neatly in small
compartments, and Yurina found what she was looking for quickly.
     "You managed to retrieve some very useful treasures, Yurina,"
Rei said with approval.  The inventory Yurina had supplied had been
quite impressive in its thoroughness.
     "We have long been prepared to move on a moment's notice,"
Yurina remarked, rising with a thin black wooden case in her hand.  "We
have often been forced to suddenly abandon dwellings, as you no doubt
recall.  I believed we would have time to empty our vital cache before the
vampire could break the Ni ... Sister Saekianna's will."
     "Yurina," Rei said, her voice low.  "You can call her Nightmistress.  It
was her title."
     Yurina bowed her head in acknowledgment.  "The Dark Lady
believes our Nightmistress failed us, does she not?  A harsh judgement,
that.  We all failed her in following a lie.  All, it seems, but you."
     "I failed her as well, Yurina.  I saw the truth, but couldn't save any of
them.  And I don't judge Saekianna harshly.  I know her heart was true,
as true as any of us.  She wanted only one thing, and that was to free our
Dark Lady.  It grieves me, Yurina, that she never got to see this day.
Believe that."
     Yurina stood before her, faint tension thrumming through her
slender body.  This was the first time the two of them had been alone, and
Rei knew there was much that needed to be said.  The relationship
between the two of them would be vital to the new Sisterhood.  A certain
degree of informality was generally permitted between the Black Rose
and the Nightmistress in private.  Whether that had been the case between
Yurina and Saekianna Rei didn't know.  And wouldn't ask.
     She was Nightmistress now.  Things were going to be done her
way.
     "May I speak freely?" Yurina asked at last, setting her fan and the
case on the bed.
     "Of course."
     "The situation we find ourselves in is precarious, to say the least.
It is not my place to question the Dark Lady's will, of course ..."
     "But?"  Rei crossed her arms.
     "Your loyalties are divided, Rei Darkeyes.  And those loyalties
may be brought into direct conflict due to our presence here."
     "There is no conflict, Yurina."
     "Indeed?"  Yurina arched one eyebrow, and Rei knew where the
woman was going with this.
     "Is this about Makoto?"
     "She is your friend."  Yurina seemed to be choosing her words
carefully.
     "Yes, she is.  And frankly, I'm glad she was able to confront you
the way she did."
     "I see."
     "Do you?  Yurina, you told me you regretted what happened.
And I believe you.  Whether Makoto does or not, she has a duty to Usagi,
and Usagi promised to keep you all safe.  It was better to get things out in
the open rather than let them fester.  I would not have let her hurt you."
     "You would have fought your friend for me?" Yurina asked.
Her expression was still carefully neutral.
     "Yurina," Rei sighed.  "You have no idea how difficult things
have been around here since my past was revealed.  And my relationship
with Makoto has suffered the most, I think.  When she found out that
Lily was actually one of the Sisterhood, she punched me.  But she is still
my friend, and I love her deeply.  Which is why I would have fought her,
if necessary, to protect you."
     "You would not want my blood on her hands," Yurina said, a
trifle dryly.
     "No, I wouldn't.  But I will also fight to protect you, because I
am your Nightmistress."  Rei took one step closer to the other woman,
then another, reaching out to cup Yurina's cheek gently.  "And I have not
forgotten what that means."
     Rei pulled Yurina to her abruptly, fingers sliding behind the
startled girl's head as she brought her mouth down, seizing Yurina's in a
passionate kiss.  Yurina struggled as Rei held her close, engaging in an
erotic duel of hunger and dark desires.  Deflecting Yurina's counters
skillfully, Rei drew the girl in, overwhelming her resistance with the
slow, seductive skill that had served her well in her previous life.
Yurina's lush lips began to soften under Rei's ministrations, and finally
parted with a soft, throaty moan.  The kiss drew out, becoming less a
battle and more a duet of passions, until finally Rei drew away, their
mouths parting reluctantly.
     Rei stared down into Yurina's lidded eyes, pleased to note that
the normally imperturbable Black Rose was flushed and breathing hard.
Using her long nails to trace the vulnerable points at the nape of Yurina's
neck, Rei gave the girl a sultry smile.
     "You should not forget who I was, Yurina," she whispered.  "As
a Sister, I might have become Nightmistress anyway, had things worked
out differently.
     "Your skills have not atrophied, Nightmistress," Yurina
whispered back, her lithe body melded against Rei's by the heat of their
kiss.  "You are as fierce as I remember.  I grieved after your
disappearance, you know.  We believed you had fallen to the Inquisition,
and your fire was sorely missed in our ranks."
     "So many lies between us, oh Black Rose.  So much distrust, on
both sides.  I need you to trust in me now, all of you.  I will honour the
Dark Lady's choice.  I will lead you faithfully."
     Yurina lay her head on Rei's shoulder, clinging tightly to her in a
moment of vulnerability that Rei knew was not feigned.  "After the
ceremony, I did what I could."  The girls's voice was soft, her breath hot
on Rei's neck.  "I gathered the Maidens, kept them moving.  We
retrieved what we could and went to ground, hiding.  The girls were in
shock, of course, and grieved for their Sisters.  But worse was the
knowledge that we had been used once again, that we had rushed
willingly to our doom.  I could see that knowledge eating at them even as
it ate at me.  I kept order as best I could, but I am ashamed to admit that
knowledge of my failure weakened my resolve.  I had no idea what to do
next."
     "How are the girls now?"
     Yurina lifted her head and gently disengaged herself from their
embrace.  She had regained some of her composure, but even Yurina was
only human, and Rei could see that her heart had been eased.
     "Confused," Yurina admitted, bowing her head so that the lights
gleamed on the complex swirls of hair as dark as Rei's own.  "Those we
hated, we must now trust.  Their leader has been named our Lady's
Deitra.  A Sister once denounced as a traitor, the new Nightmistress.  The
Dark Lady's appearance has thrown everything into chaos, Rei Darkeyes.
I don't think it has fully sunk in yet.  Still, they now have a leader once
more."
        "That doesn't mean they're happy about it.  Bella has already
made a point of acting out in front of the others."
     "You know Bella," Yurina said, giving Rei a small but genuine
smile.  "She wants to be reined in and disciplined.  A specialty of yours,
if I recall."
     "She as much as challenged my authority in front of the others,
Yurina.  That could get her more than she bargained for."
     "Yes," Yurina said, her expression turning solemn.  "But I must
beg your indulgence, Nightmistress.  Bella is hurt, confused.  And
angry."
     "Jade," Rei acknowledged.
     "They were very close," Bella said softly.  "And girls like her,
our order is all they have.  It is their world."
     "I haven't forgotten, Yurina."
     "Then you know that they are anxious right now.  Their service to the
Sisters gave their lives order and structure.  They were valued, cared for.
Now they are here, but the Sisters are gone.  Too many changes, too
quickly."  Yurina gave Rei a measuring stare.  "And more changes to
come, if I'm not mistaken."
     "Things can't go back to the way they were.  Change is inevitable."
     "You intend change the Dark Lady's order?  To what end?  Are we
to become servants to the senshi?"
     "No.  They deserve your respect, but they do not command your
service.  That is not our way, and I have not forgotten that, either.  Listen,
Yurina, the problem is that the Sisterhood has already changed.  We need
to go back toward what we once were, a respected order.  That is my
goal."
     Yurina nodded slowly, lips pursed in thought.  "Well spoken.
The girls should hear this from you.  It would do much to set their hearts
at ease."
     "They will.  But there's one other thing.  One of the most
valuable assets the Maidens have right now is Usagi's trust.  I believe
that the Dark Lady acknowledged her because she recognises her true
nature, and just how powerful an asset that can be to all of us.  Usagi
doesn't want to change you in her image, Yurina, but she can help you
all, the way she helped me.  She can heal hearts ravaged by darkness, and
make you feel whole again.  Her trust is precious, Yurina.  It's the key to
your future.  Believe me when I tell you that it must not be abused."
     "I do.  This joining of our two groups, though, it is difficult, no?
We are not alike."
     "You don't have to tell me that.  For now, the most important
thing is to keep you all safe until we can track down this Wynneth."
     "Very well, Nightmistress."  Yurina retrieved the black case from
the bed, opening it to reveal rows of narrow lacquered boxes.  She traced
her fingernail along them until she found the one she wanted, retrieving it
and holding it out to Rei.  "You brought us this one, as I recall.  It should
serve you well tonight."
     "Poetic justice," Rei murmured as she took the small box.
     "I wish you would reconsider allowing one of us to accompany
you, Nightmistress."
     "That's unlike you, Yurina.  This plan doesn't play to the
strengths of the Maidens.  It's direct to the point of being vulgar,
wouldn't you say?"
     "It could also be dangerous," Yurina noted, picking up her fan
and flicking it open.  "Our Nightmistress and our Dark Lady's Deitra are
going into danger, and we have lost so much of late.  I confess to being
anxious."
     "Put your energies to better use, Yurina," Rei said gently.  "Keep
on top of the girls.  This has to have been rough on them.  I'll want to
speak to them all personally over the next few days, but for now, I need
you to be my eyes and ears."
     "It shall be done, Nightmistress."
     "Excellent.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a plan to
coordinate."

***

     I watched as Usagi ran and jumped into Mamoru's arms.  She
kissed him all over is face before settling on his mouth, and I felt my
cheeks warm as their kiss lingered.  It still got me flustered, watching
public displays like that.  Still, it was a nice way to welcome someone
home.
     "I hear you helped out Ranma and Minako today," she said when
they finally came up for air.
     "Well, they returned the favour," he told her, turning to tip me a
grateful nod.
     "Glad we could help," I said.  "Seriously."
     "So what's up with all the cars?" he asked her.
     "Um, would you like to hear what we're doing tonight?" she
asked with a brilliant smile.  Most men would have melted in the heat of
that smile, but Mamoru just sighed.
     "How much," he asked, "am I not going to like this?"
     "The Crusade has mistakenly imprisoned Minako's Peorth, and
we're going to break her out.  We have a plan."
     "I hate it," he told her as she clung to his shoulders.
     "You haven't even heard it yet!" she objected, punching him
lightly on the arm.
     "What's with all the cars?" he asked me.
     "Um," I said.  I did not want to be the person to tell him about the
Maidens.  And the new Nightmistress.
     "Guess who I met today?" Usagi asked, dialing her smile up a
few notches.
     "Someone with a lot of cars?"
     "She's a goddess, she was sealed in an Osiren, and her name
starts with 'D'."
     Mamoru stared down at her for a moment.  Probably trying to
figure out if she was joking.
     "Has Minako been giving you those little bottles of chocolate liqueur
again?" he asked at last.
     "Mamoru, I'm serious!"
     "That's what worries me."
     "Hey, Ranma, have you seen ..."  Minako broke off abruptly as
she walked in and saw Mamoru.  "Oh, hey.  You're back."  She smiled
innocently.  I'd only known Minako for a short time, but even I knew
that when Minako looked innocent it meant she was hiding something.
Mamoru had known her longer than I had.
     "What's going on?" he asked, looking at each of us in turn.
"Come on, how bad could it be?"
     "So, we met Dasma," Usagi said, gently gripping his tie and
tugging it to bring his attention back to her.  "Me and Rei.  She asked us
to take care of the girls for her."
     "Dasma," he said.  "You met Dasma.  But the unsealing ceremony
was a fake."
     "Yeah, as it turns out, it may have helped free her," Usagi told him.
"Garven d'Or used some doo-wackit thingie to break the seal."
     He stared at her.  "Are you SURE you haven't been into the
liqueur?"
     "Anyway, long story short, now we have maid service!  Isn't that
great?"
     "We've got what?"  I could see the wheels turning inside his head
as he processed everything Usagi had told him.  "Wait.  You found the
Maidens?"
     "Well, Dasma found them."
     "And they're HERE?"
     "AndDasmamadeReiNightmistress.  Hungry?"
     Mamoru blinked, staring down a her.  Then he glanced at
Minako, who nodded.  I just shrugged when he looked my way.
     "Does this make any sense to anybody?" he asked at last.
     "No" I told him reassuringly.  "It's pretty much crazy.  But I've just
been going with it."
     "It's all going to work out," Usagi reassured him.  The remarkable
thing, to me anyway, was that she sounded utterly convincing.  Oh,
Dasma dropped by, made Rei the new Nightmistress and asked us to
watch her Maidens, and later we're going to assault Inquisition
headquarters and break out some girl from Shadow who claims to know
all about the key and then, maybe, we'll make the sun shine again.
Perfectly reasonable.
     "Tell me," he sighed, "about this plan."
     It seemed to me that Mamoru must be used to Usagi's relentless
optimism.  He didn't even bother to try and deflect it.  Yup, a match
made in heaven.  He stayed composed as Usagi gave him the highlights,
just staring down at her with a kind of bemused tolerance.
     "And this seems like a rational idea to all of you?" he asked
when she'd finished.  "Are you SURE about the liqueur?"
     "I know it sounds crazy," I told him.  "But look.  The vamp went
to a lot of trouble over the last two years, trying to draw me out.  She
wants the key, and we don't know why.  If Peorth has info about the key,
then we might get the upper hand with this vamp for the first time.  She
turned off the sun, for God's sake.  Are we really gonna wait and see
what she does next?"
     "She didn't actually turn it off ..." Minako began.
     "You get the point," I said.  "I could do this alone, you know.
One person ..."
     "No way," Minako objected.
     "Not gonna happen!" Usagi said at the same time.
     "Fine," I sighed.  "Then we should get ready to go."
     "I'll go see if Ami is ready," Usagi announced, bouncing away
with entirely too much energy.  She was not nearly worried enough about
this crazy plan, if you asked me.  Since nobody had, I kept my
misgivings to myself.
     "I just had a thought," Mamoru said as she vanished down the
hall.  "Yurina.  Does Makoto know she's here?"
     "Oh, yeah," Minako grimaced.  "You missed that part.  Surprisingly,
Makoto was quite restrained.  Yurina doesn't have any holes in her."
     "I can't believe Rei would bring them here," Mamoru said,
frowning.  "Knowing what happened between Makoto and Yurina, not to
mention everything over the last week.  Hells, the Sisterhood sicced that
succubus on us in the tunnels, and you saw what she did to Usako."
     "Usagi promised to protect them," Minako reminded him.  "And
now that Dasma asked personally, well, what are we supposed to do?"
     "I don't imagine that's any great consolation to Makoto."
     "No," Minako sighed.  "It isn't.  It would be nice if we could put
the past aside and just all be on the same side now, but you know as well
as I do that it's not going to be that easy.  I guess we take it one day at a
time."
     "And day one," he said, shrugging out of his jacket, "is this plan
of yours.  Did I mention I hate it?"
     "I took it as read," she grinned, apparently not insulted in the
least.  "But Ami and Makoto'll be right there."
     "And me," he told her.  "Has anyone called Hotaru and the others
in on this?"
     "Usagi wants to keep them out of this," I said.  "Hotaru's still
pretty wound up about this Wynneth thing, and I don't think Usagi's too
anxious to mention any of this other stuff."
     "Anyway, we can handle it," Minako said.  "In and out, bingo
bango bongo.  They won't know what hit 'em."
     "Uh-huh," he said, not sounding particularly convinced.  "Like
our catch a wraith plan.  Or the storm the mansion plan.  Or the fool the
sultana scheme.  Or ..."
     "Are you going somewhere with this?" Minako asked, sounding
aggrieved.
     "The only place I'm going is someplace I can back Usako up
when this thing turns to crap."
     The conversation was saved from degenerating into an all-out
argument by the arrival of Usagi, bounding in on a wave of manic
energy.
     "Everything's good!" she announced.  "We'll be ready in about
twenty minutes!"
     "Great," I said.  I was itching to get this thing done.  Answers, I
thought.  Almost in reach, at last.  Only the White Order's Inquisitors
stood in the way.
     Sucked to be them.

***

     Setsuna hesitated outside the door to Hotaru's study.  Their
leader had thrown herself ever more intensely into her work over the past
three days, to the point where Setsuna was beginning to fear for her
health.  She rarely ate, barely slept, preferring to drive herself ever
forward, as though she could find and end this vampire by mere force of
will.
     She'd certainly refuse to rest.  Perhaps this distraction wold be the
next best thing.
     "Setsuna."  Michiru and Haruka came down the hall from the
other direction, Michiru carrying a plate with some food.  "Come to try
and pry her away from her obsession?"
     "Something like that," Setsuna admitted.  "Are you both up for
going out tonight?"
     "Fully recovered," Haruka grinned.  "Not even a scar.  Gods
bless the senshi metabolism."
     "Shall I make a remark about how hard your head is?" Michiru
murmured with a slow, sidelong look at the blonde.
     "But dear Michiru, I wouldn't want you to do anything that was
beneath you."
     "That," Michiru said with a sly smile, "is not what you said last
night."
     "Okay, you're both back to normal," Setsuna sighed, knocking
on the study door.  "I get it."
     "Not often enough," Michiru said, and Haruka snickered.
Honestly, the two of them were impossible sometimes.  Gods save her
from people in love.  Insufferable, the lot of them.
     There was no answer, of course, but she hadn't really expected
one.  Setsuna simply opened the door and walked inside, followed by the
others.  Hotaru sat at her desk, scowling at a impressive array of open
books, scrolls, printouts, and at least one broken stone tablet.
     "Hotaru."
     "Yes," Hotaru muttered, not looking up.  "Just leave it over
there."
     Setsuna shook her head.  Hotaru's hair was mussed, her blouse
wrinkled, her earrings sitting atop the computer monitor.  The normally
prim and organised woman was showing the strain of the past few days.
When she wasn't out hunting, she was trying to glean clues from the past
about the creature who claimed to be her mother.
     Hotaru had not taken the news well.
     "We brought you food," Michiru said.  Hotaru nodded, although
Setsuna was fairly certain she hadn't heard a word the girl had said.
     "Hotaru."  Setsuna leaned over the desk, planting her hand on the
document the woman was reading.  "I have news."
     "News?"  Hotaru looked up, blinking owlishly.  "About her?"
     "Indirectly," Setsuna admitted.  "Two things.  Mamoru just
called.  Apparently, Dasma has been freed and is running around Saeni
even as we speak."
     "Really?" Hotaru asked.  Disinterested would not do justice to
the woman's expression.  "Fascinating.  Setsuna ..."
     "And since our vampiric quarry killed all of her priestesses, it
seems that the Dark Lady is intent on killing Wynneth when she catches
her ..."
     "That bitch is mine!"  Hotaru shot to her feet, and Setsuna
stepped back instinctively.
     "Well, at least you got her attention," Haruka said dryly.
     "Hotaru, there's no sense in yelling at me about it.  I'm just
telling you what the situation is.  And if this vamp ends up dead, does it
really matter ...?"
     "It does matter," Hotaru said breathily.  "Don't tell me that it
doesn't matter.  I want to see her.  I want to look her in the eye when I
ask her ..."
     "Hotaru, this vampire has already gone out of her way to mock
you," Setsuna said gently.  "She has plunged in the knife and twisted it,
just to make you squirm.  It is entirely possible, I would even go so far as
to say probable, that she is lying about her true identity."
     "Simply to hurt you," Michiru added.  "And you are letting her."
     Hotaru grimaced, running her hands over her face wearily.
     "You're right," she mumbled at last.  "Gods, I know you're right.
But what if it is true?  The woman who ruined my life back then does it
again in this time?  My own mother?  I want the chance to drag the truth
from her.  I want to know why.  I deserve to know."
     "Whatever the truth, she is unworthy of being your mother,"
Haruka said with a snort, moving to stand behind Hotaru.  "If Wynneth
Vesra de Morgana truly is the last head of House Saturn, then she has
long since lost any right to claim you as her daughter.  We are your
family, Hotaru.  Depend on us."
     "Haruka's right," Michiru murmured, taking Hotaru's hand.
"She told the girls because she wants you to be tormented.  Don't give
her what she wants.  You've spent three days obsessing over the past,
love, but the future should concern us right now."
     "Maybe she wants you to hesitate when the moment comes,"
Setsuna said, and Hotaru scowled.
     "I would not."
     "Truly?  You said it yourself, you want to know.  She's a
manipulator, and she's playing a game.  She's in your head, Hotaru.
You want to know how she could have done these things to you almost
as badly as you want to end her, and that is dangerous.  Understandable,
but dangerous."
     Hotaru held Setsuna's gaze for a moment, then looked to Michiru
and Haruka.  She sighed heavily, some of the manic intensity draining
from her slender body.
     "I'm sorry," she said at last.  "But I can't just let this go."
     "Guys!" Haruka exclaimed, clearly alarmed.  "Hotaru is unable
to let something go!"
     "Why, that doesn't sound like her," Michiru shot back, wide-
eyed.
     "Oh, very funny," Hotaru grumbled.
     "The point is, we know you," Setsuna told her with a tiny smile.
"We know you can't let this go.  That's why you need to let us help you.
We'll cover your blind spots.  We'll keep you from running off half-
cocked.  Which, we all understand, is Haruka's job."
     "Maybe I don't tell you this enough," Hotaru said ruefully, "but
I'd be lost without you.  All of you.  Thank you."
     "You want to thank us?" Setsuna asked.  "Sit down and eat."
     Hotaru sighed again, but sat down and pulled the plate in front of
her.  "We still need to find her," she said grumpily.  "You realise that."
     "Of course.  But you understand that everybody in the city is
looking for her, and so far nobody has found her.  We need to be patient,
Hotaru.  I know that's hard, but we can't let her make us play her game.
Patience is the key.  She will make a move, and when she does, we will
be there to stop her."
     "All of us," Haruka added.  "So stop trying to carry this thing by
yourself."
     "I get it," Hotaru muttered.  "Okay?  But waiting for her to make
a move is what got us into this situation in the first place, people.  We
need to figure out what she's up to and take the initiative.  That's the
key."
     "Perhaps," Michiru nodded.  "But I seriously doubt the answer is
in that."  She waved at the veritable flood of old books and documents.
     "Understand where she came from," Hotaru said.  "And you'll
understand where she's going."
     "Blah, blah.  Eat!" Haruka commanded, and as Hotaru complied,
Setsuna was startled to hear the phone ringing.  Service had been hit and
miss over the last few days.  Frowning, she went to see who was calling.
     Hotaru was feeling better, she could see that much.  But it was far
too easy these days for her to slip into her dark moods.  The constant
darkness, the debauched moonlight, and her need to find the creature who
haunted her life, all these things conspired against her.  Fortunately, one
nightmare had yet to rear its ugly head.
     The hunger.  Hotaru had not yet shown any symptoms.  But as
the Darkness wore on, a return of her vampiric hunger became more and
more likely.
     Hotaru was right.  They needed to find this vampire, whoever she
really was.  And quickly.

***

     She surfaced like a diver coming up for air, the shadows parting
around her like water.  Wynneth opened her eyes and saw that it was
over.
     She had returned.
     Weariness descended on her, and she let the burden in her arms
fall bonelessly to the floor.  All around her she sensed them, her wraith,
flocking from all parts of the citadel to her chambers, ecstatic at the
return of their mistress.
     Wynneth moved across the room and sat on the end of her
immense bed, careful not to show any of the weakness she was feeling.
She watched impassively as the room filled with wraith, her loyal
minions kneeling before her in tribute.
     As well they might.  It was done.  She had sounded the death-
knell of mortal rule, and ridden its echoes down through the depths of
reality.  All the way.
     All the way to the bottom.
     And now it was done.  All the seals were broken, all the ways
now unguarded.  She'd stood before that final barrier for only a brief
moment, but that had been enough.  She, Wynneth Vesra de Morgana,
had accomplished the unthinkable, the unconceivable.  She had tamed
powers that none could even comprehend.  She had turned them to her
own purposes ...
     (soon)
     and soon she would finally be the undisputed sovereign of
everything.  All would worship her.  All would ...
     All would love her.
     "Mistress!"  Cyrie stopped in the doorway, fell to her knees.
"You have returned at last!  You've been gone so long, I feared ..."
     "Fear is pointless, Cyrie," Wynneth murmured disapprovingly.
"It robs you of grace."
     "I beg forgiveness, Mistress," Cyrie moaned, bowing low.
     "But of course, pet.  See, I have brought you a toy."
     Cautiously, Cyrie raised her head to gaze upon the crumpled
form that lay on the floor.  Her eyes widened in recognition and she
moved closer.
     "Saekianna," she breathed.
     "She served me well," Wynneth told her, sparing a fond glance
for the unconscious girl.  "Her vitality was needed during the long
voyage.  I had expected her to die, but she is strong, your daughter."
     "Yes," Cyrie hissed.  "Always strong.  I taught her to be so."
     "The lesson seems to have taken.  Remove her, Cyrie.  See that
she is fed.  If she survives, she may be of use."
     "Of course, Mistress."
     "And Cyrie?"
     "Mistress?"
     Wynneth smiled, showing her fangs.
     "Bring me fresh blood," she said softly.  "The voyage was VERY
long.  And I hunger."

***

     Yurina watched as the lights of the cars disappeared down the
winding drive.  Letting the heavy curtain fall back into place, she turned
to find four girls gathered behind her.
     "Are they really going to leave us here alone?" Kisa asked her.
"Without any chaperones?"
     "I believe those two shifters are still in the house," Yurina said
calmly.  "If that is what they are.  And I have not seen the Nightmistress's
two fairy companions since we returned.  We are not truly alone."
     "Yurina, what do you make of this?" Fawn asked her.  Tall and
curvaceous, Fawn was one of the girls who had failed to become a Sister.
Unlike Jade, however, she showed no signs of simmering resentment, for
which Yurina was silently grateful.  Things were going to be complicated
enough as it was.
     "By this, I assume you are referring to our current situation,"
Yurina replied evenly.
     "Naturally.  It's just so hard to accept ..."
     "We accept," Yurina told her, "what the Dark Lady tells us."
     "Why did she leave?" Bella asked, her lips set in a petulant pout.
"Is she testing us?  She left that woman in charge, and now we are
surrounded by these sailor girls.  None of them is worthy of our service!"
     "Not even Mistress Usagi?" Danii asked.
     "I wanted to find that out," Bella scowled.  "But our new
Nightmistress would not allow it."
     "She is Deitra to our Dark Lady, Bella," Yurina said, showing the
edge that lurked under her velvet tones.  "You would do well to
remember that.  If she desires anything of us, she will no doubt make her
wishes known.  And you will show her the respect due her station.
Understood?"
    "I understand," Bella sulked. Yurina fought the urge to lash out
at the girl.  Bella needed a strong hand, and that sort of discipline was in
short supply.
     "Good.  Girls, listen to me.  We have prayed for this moment for
so long, and now it has arrived.  Even though nothing is as it was to be,
still we are here, and our Dark Lady is free once more.  We must be
worthy of our position in her order."
     "But Bella is right," Fawn pointed out, tossing her heavy cloak of
hair back as she spoke.  "These sailor girls are not Sisters of Shadows.
Our oath does not require us to serve them."
     "It is the wish of our Nightmistress, and of Mistress Usagi," Yurina
said firmly, "that we show them respect.  They are not Sisters, and so will
not command our service.  However, we will serve them in all other
ways, with the grace and skill we have been taught.  We will bring
honour to the Maidens of the Rose, and to the name of the Dark Lady.
     "Yurina," Danii began, clearly hesitant.  "What about our new
Nightmistress?  Do you think she will really protect us?  No matter
what?"
     "And if not, what then?" Fawn added.  "There aren't any other
Sisters to challenge her."
     "There will be," Yurina assured them.  "Now that the Dark Lady
has returned, we will regain our standing.  Girls will dream of entry into
our ranks.  But I have spoken with our Nightmistress, and I believe her
heart to be true.  I saw with my own eyes how she and Mistress Usagi
took our honoured dead from the White Order's temple to bury them.
She did that, even though they were battle-weary, even though the
Sisterhood had been their implacable foe.  They did that because they
knew our Sisters could never rest on the ground of the White Order.
Remember that, my Maidens, if you should doubt their hearts."
     "You truly believe she will be worthy of our service, Yurina?" Kisa
asked.
     "I do.  And I will deal with any who show disloyalty to our Order
as harshly as ever.  Now come.  See to your duties.  I will give our new
Nightmistress no cause for displeasure this night."
     Nodding, the girls bowed and turned to leave.  All, Yurina saw
without surprise, but Bella.
     "Yurina," the girl said softly.  "Our Dark Lady will crush this
vampire, won't she?  She will make her pay?"
     "Her vengeance will be sweet," Yurina replied, taking Bella's
hands and squeezing them.  "And terrible.  Now go, Bella."
     Smiling, Bella went.
     Yurina watched her go, her heart troubled.  Not by the natural doubts
of the girls, but by the absence of their Dark Lady, and both women who
now had authority over the Order.  She turned to look out the window
again.  A pair of crows sat on a branch outside the window, watching her
with avian indifference, and for a moment she wished to be such a simple
creature as a bird, with few cares beyond the moment.
     She couldn't shake a sense of terrible apprehension.  It was
unthinkable that, having just gained so much, they would lose it so soon.
     Wasn't it?

***

     "You know, security's a little lax," Gar said as Kendra walked
into her bedchamber.  He kept his hands in sight as her hand dropped to
the sword sheathed at her side, something he was glad of when Raine
burst in moments later, gun in hand.  He wondered idly what had tipped
her off.
     "Majesty!  What ...?"  She froze as she caught sight of Gar, and
he gave the pair his most winning smile.
     "Okay, I know you're mad," he told Kendra.  "But hear me out."
     "Garfield Vanryse," Kendra said in a low, venomous tone.  "Ex-
head of Royal Operations."
     Ouch.
     "What is the penalty for abandoning one's post in a time of
national emergency, Raine?"  Kendra's voice could have cut diamond.
     "Majesty, perhaps we should hear him out."
     Gar wasn't sure who was more surprised by that, him or the
young Queen.
     "Excuse me?"  Kendra was incredulous, but Gar wasn't going to
let this opening pass him by.
     "I have some important things to tell you, Your Majesty," he said
quickly.  "Things you need to hear.  Things about the situation we now
find ourselves in."
     "Ourselves?  When my palace was destroyed and everyone in it,
including most of the people you were responsible for, were killed, I
don't recall you being around, Mister Vanryse."
     "That's not my name."  May as well go for broke.  The time for
deception was over.
     "What?"  Kendra still hadn't taken her hand from Galiraithe's
hilt, and Gar knew this had the potential to get very ugly indeed.  He'd
thought he would have more time, that he'd be able to do this at a time
and place of his choosing.  So much for the best laid plans.
     "My name.  It's not Garfield Vanryse."
     "What in the hells are you saying, man?" Raine spat.  Her gun
was still aimed at him.  The eyepatch was new, but Gar was willing to
bet she could still hit him with only one eye.
     "My real name," he said, "is Garven d'Or, and I came here
because I wanted to help you."
     "If you think that being outrageous is going to help you this time,
Gar, then you are deluded!" Kendra growled.  "Raine, place him under
arrest!"
     "I'm going to show you something," Gar said, raising his right
hand.  "Don't shoot me, okay?"  He reached out for the trigger, feeling it
in his head, its shape, its texture.  Mentally, he gave it a gentle squeeze.
     Glimmering motes of light sprang out from his hand, resolving
themselves into a long, slender shape.  It belled out around his hand at the
grip and flared at one end, tapering to a dangerous point at the far end.
He held the weapon very still as Raine pulled her second gun, holding
him dead in her sights.
     "Gar," she said in a low voice.  "That was damned stupid."
     Ordinarily, he'd have agreed with her.  Pulling a weapon,
especially a magickal one, in Her Majesty's presence was just begging
for a shower of bullets.  But he needed her to believe him, and Tam
Greely was gone.  So this was the quickest way.
     "Just look at it," he said.  His skin itched, waiting for the impact
of Raine's enchanted rounds to begin tearing into him.  "This is a pretty
distinctive weapon, right?"
     "Drop it," Raine commanded, circling away from Kendra.  Gar
complied, tossing the weapon lightly to the floor between him and the
Queen.  He waited, hands raised, as Kendra stepped forward and knelt.
She grasped the weapon gently by the grip and hefted it, eyes flicking
over the four symbols etched in the quicksilver metal along the flared
guard.
     "You idiot," Raine whispered from behind him.  "What are you
playing at?"
     Interesting.  Why did Raine care?  She should have been
delighted that Gar's unorthodox ways had finally caught up to him.  A
mystery, but not the most pressing matter at the moment.  He watched as
Kendra stood, inspecting the long but elegant weapon carefully.
     "Majesty?" Raine asked from out of his line of sight.  "What is
that?"
     "It's the Lance of Elements," she said slowly.  "Or a very good
copy."
     "That's a lot of trouble to go to for a joke," Gar pointed out.
"That's the real deal.  You could have Raine try to damage it with
something.  She wouldn't be able to scratch it.  I must warn you, though,
there might be a defensive reaction ..."
     "This is ludicrous!" Kendra snapped.  "You are my cousin, your
entire family perished in the outlands years ago!  Only you survived,
because Tam Greely saved your life that night!"
     "Other way around, actually," Gar said.  "I saved his.  He knew
who I was, Kendra.  That's why he lied about my identity when I came
here."
     Kendra stared at him.  Gar knew that he was about to add to the
shadows lurking in her eyes, and he wished that were not so.  But his
personal fondness for her couldn't change the fact that the time his
mother had foreseen was upon them.
     There was no more time.
     "You are telling me," she said slowly, knuckles white around the
lance's grip, "that one of my most trusted advisors, a man who loyally
served my mother, lied to me for years?"
     "For good reason," Gar said.  "The truth would have placed you
in danger."
     "Be careful, Gar.  If I start believing you, you may just end up
with a bloody great hole in you."  Kendra's glare had gone from cold to
red-hot, and Gar twisted his right hand, ordinary sleight-of- hand this
time.  The photo was one he'd gotten from one of his contacts in the
military.  As far as that man had known, Gar was still head of Royal
Operations.  He tossed the photo lightly, letting it waft to the floor in
front of the enraged queen.
     "You know what that is?" he asked.
     "I've seen that picture," Raine said quickly, almost as though she
wanted to steer the conversation away from the imminent impaling of
Gar.  "It's the effect that appeared in the clouds above the palace, just
before it was destroyed.  Captured by a couple of different sources, that
one's military."
     "Then you've already linked it to the events at Terrin Saeche ten
years ago.  Something not only dug up a place cursed by the Underlords,
it somehow managed to harness the power those archeologists stumbled
onto in that old temple and use it as a weapon."
     "I know as much about Terrin Saeche as you do," Kendra said
tightly.  Gar gave her a crooked grin.
     "Doubtful.  But here's a question.  How did you survive the
attack on the palace?  Why you, and nobody else?  That's a question I
can answer, Kendra."
     She was still angry, that much was clear.  But she was hesitating,
too.  Part of her believed him.  And maybe part of her didn't want to lose
him, the way she'd lost so many people.
     "Then tell me," she said tightly.
     "It was Galiraithe, of course.  But why?  Why was that sword
able to defend against such an ugly, primal power?"
     "I suppose you are going to claim to know."
     "I do know.  It was Coronn who forged Galiraithe, after all, a very
long time ago.  He forged her from the hull of one of the ships used by
the gods to come here.  Why?  Well, that I can't say for certain, although
I have a theory.  There was an incident, you see, one which mortally
wounded my mother.  Coronn was one of the only survivors of what
happened, and I think he knew what my mother did, that a great disaster
lurked in the far future.  So he did something that was forbidden."
     "He made a magick sword," Kendra said flatly.  "This fairytale
will not save your hide, Gar, or whoever you really are."
     "What is the only thing that can protect against the power of the
Underlords?  What is the only defence?"  Gar stared at her as her brow
furrowed, taken off-guard by the question.  He watched as she put it
together, then dropped the lance on the floor.  She yanked Galiraithe
from her sheath and held the blade aloft, staring into the depths of the
metal as though she might see the truth there.
     "No," she breathed.  "No, that's impossible."
     "It's true," Gar told her gently.  "In some way, Galiraithe is
aware.  And she knows the True Names of the Underlords.  All of them."
     She believed.  He could see it.  She'd been there, had survived the
forces which had destroyed the palace, and so she believed him.  That
was good, but that wasn't all he needed from her.  So he waited while
Kendra stared at the Sword of Queens as though she'd never seen it
before, and then he spoke again.
     "Raine, can I put my hands down now?  My arms are getting
tired."  She must have looked to Kendra for permission, but the Queen
just nodded absently, and he let his hands fall with a sigh.
     "Great," he said.  "Now ..."
     "How did the House of Dantus come by this sword?" Kendra
asked, fixing him with her gaze once more.  "If you're telling the truth,
tell me that."
     Well.  Still testing him, was she?  But there was no harm in
revealing that.  Surely, Kendra knew who'd given her ancestor that
blade, even though it wasn't common knowledge.
     "Coronn was always fond of my half-sister," Gar shrugged.
"And if he knew any part of what was revealed that day, then he knew
that a disaster was coming, and that this city would be at the heart of it.
So he gave it to her, and she ended up giving it to her Deitra, Yukianna
the Black."
     "Our first queen was a demigoddess?" Raine asked.  "Truly?"
     "Truly," Kendra whispered.  "Not something known outside of the
direct line of ascension.  And you say you are kin to that goddess?"
     "Which makes us relatives after all," Gar said.
     Kendra walked over to the antique desk that sat at the far end of
the room and sat heavily in the matching chair.  Then she seemed to
realise she was still holding Gailraithe, and rose again to sheathe the
blade.
     "Look," Gar said.  "I know this is a lot, and I wish circumstances
were different.  But I only twigged to what was happening very recently,
and I had to go to Aethyr Realm to free my sister."
     "She's unsealed, then?"
     They hadn't mentioned the name of the goddess in question, and
although Gar was certain that Raine could put it together from what she
was hearing, he knew she had Kendra's complete confidence.  The way
he once had.
     "She is.  But here's the thing.  Whatever happened on Baniesti
threw us far through the planes of reality to a distant, barren place.  It
took us three days to get back to here."
     "So?"  Kendra gently set her sheathed sword on the top of the
desk and sat again, pulling a heavy crystal decanter from inside the desk.
"You're back now, too late to do anything for all the people who served
under you."
     Bitter.  Well, tough.  So was he.  He would have wanted nothing
more than to have been there, but he'd lived a long time, and he knew all
about the big picture.  He'd had a duty, and he'd performed it.  And he
would live with the consequences.
     "So?  So it should have taken longer.  A lot longer.  Whatever
force was unleashed at Baniesti, it rippled through the planes.  It did
something, something subtle but pervasive and bloody powerful.  I'm not
sure what.  But it can't be good, that I'm sure of.  Look, even though it's
not common knowledge, you know as well as I that we still don't
understand what caused the Long Dark, or what stopped it.  Skip thinks
it never really was stopped, just, I don't know, paused with all the
elements in place waiting for something else, a next stage.  Maybe what
we're seeing right now."
     "Why did you come here?" Kendra asked, and she sounded
weary.  She raised a glass that was worth a week's salary to him, eyed
the contents, then drained off a healthy amount of the contents.  "What
exactly is it you want from me, Garven d'Or?"
     "Something very bad is coming," he said simply.  "I'm not sure
what, but I have reason to believe that the gods won't be of any help.
Not that they've been particularly helpful in recent memory, anyway.  I
have a plan, Majesty.  A plan that will help protect this city and her
inhabitants, and since you are their Queen, I was thinking maybe I'd run
it by you.  Unless you intend to go on acting like a spoiled brat."
     She froze, glass halfway to her lips.  "You want to be very
careful," she said softly, pinning him with another stare full of hurt and
anger.  "This is not the time for your attitude, Gar."
     "You're pissed off," he said, letting impatience creep into his
voice.  "I get it, and as I'm sorry.  But you are the Queen, and you're
going to have to put that aside, because your people need you.  Be pissed
at me if that helps.  Yeah, I lied.  I had my reasons and they were mostly
about protecting you, but I don't expect you to like that."
     "Gar," Raine said from behind him, warning clear in her tone.
     "I was a king once as you may recall, ladies.  I know about
compromise, and about being responsible for the lives of others.  I beat
the Genrous, but I didn't do it by myself.  Does anyone here remember
what I used to pull of that feat, class?  Anyone?"
     Ah, that good ol' Gar charm, equal parts hard-edged humour,
roguishness, and bad-boy attitude.  Kendra'd always loved it, though
she'd never admit that.  And he was counting on being able to get to her
again, just enough to break through the resentment she felt towards him.
Because he really couldn't escape the creeping sense that the hour was
growing late.
     "You're talking about the Orvenpactus," Kendra said at last,
only a trifle petulant.  Always the apt pupil.  He inclined his head, giving
her a courtly bow.
     "Indeed I am."
     "What's this about?" Raine pressed.  "How does some ancient
alliance help us?"
     "Because, Raine my love, I'm getting the band back together,"
Gar grinned.
     Oh, that got her.  Angry she might be, but she was still the Queen,
and Kendra rose to her feet, astonishment clear on her lovely features.
     "What?" she gaped.  "What did you say?"
     "Oh, I've been making overtures for a while," he said.  "With
Tam's help.  I've got a lot of enemies that I didn't want to draw to your
city, but I've got a lot of friends, too.  Contacts.  I've been talking to
people.  And non-people.  Making noises, feeling the folks out.  Setting
the groundwork for ... let's call it Dantenpactus.  After all, when the
universe decides to kick the shit out of your kingdom, it behooves you to
kick back.  And for that, you need a lot of bloody great boots."
     Kendra just stood there for long moments.  In her simple but
elegant dress, her hair in a loose braid, the firelight glinting from her
slender crown, she reminded him a lot of Yukianna.  They had the same
hair, the same eyes, although Kendra's smile didn't compare to Yuki's; it
was slower and nowhere near as dangerous.
     She'd been forced to grow up quickly, but at her heart, Kendra
was a queen.  And even though he'd hurt her, she could see the value in
what he was offering her.  And the necessity.
     "How bad is this going to be?" she asked him at last.
     "My gut tells me this vampire has done more than bring back the
Dark," he told her solemnly.  "My mother was a goddess, and whatever
happened to her before she died, she used the last of her strength to find
me and warn me that this time was coming.  And to be ready to fight."
     Kendra crossed the floor until she was standing in front of him,
and she stared up into his eyes for a long time.  Gar had no idea what she
might hope to see there, but it didn't matter.  He had nothing left to hide.
     "Then let us make ready, Garven d'Or," she said softly.  "For my
kingdom, and my people, let us make ready to fight the darkness."
     She paused then, turning to glance at the lance that still lay on the
floor where she'd dropped it.
     "But I swear, if you lie to me again, be you demigod or king or
blood kin, I will be done with you.  Do you understand me?"
     "Yeah," he said, a faint pang in his chest at the hard glint in her
eyes that had never been there before, never for him at any rate.  "We're
clear, Majesty."
     She nodded once.  "Then tell me," she said.  "Of this
Dantenpactus."

***

     "Okay," Rei said, looking back over the seat.  "Out with it."
     "With what?" I asked.
     "You've got something on your mind," Rei sighed, "and it's not
too hard to guess what it is.  We might as well talk about this situation."
     I hesitated.  Actually, it wasn't the situation with the Maidens
that I was thinking about.  I glanced at Minako, who was driving, and
wondered if I should say anything.
     "It's about you and Carlina," I said finally.  I could see that I'd
surprised her.
     "What about us?" Rei asked, suddenly wary.  It seemed to me
she'd been spoiling for the chance to defend her decision to bring the
Maidens home, and wasn't too happy with the direction things had just
taken.  Well, I wasn't about to make her any happier, so I took a deep
breath and plunged ahead.
     "I've been thinking about this," I said finally, "but there never
seemed to be a good time to mention it over the last couple of days.  But
now, seeing as how we might have to fight her, and seeing how things are
shaping up ..."
     "Okay, now I'm curious," Minako said.  "What exactly are you
talking about?"
     "While we were fighting in the tunnels, Rei faced off against
Carlina.  Remember?"
     "I'm not likely to forget that," Minako snorted.
     "You're wondering about my past with her," Rei said, her face
impassive in the dim glow of the dash lights.
     "Actually, I'm wondering about what your shadow did while you
were fighting," I told her.
     "What?" Minako asked as Rei's eyes widened.  "What did her
shadow do?"
     "You saw."  Rei didn't look happy.
     "I did," I admitted.  "Your shadow reached out for her.  Twice.
And it looked to me like you had to fight to rein it back in.  Speaking as a
guy who lost control of a powerful technique himself, I'm wondering
what would have happened if it had touched her."
     Rei turned back and looked out the window, silent for a long
time.  I could see a faint reflection of her face in the passenger window,
and what I saw there made me decide not to push.
     "Rei?" Minako asked at last.
     "Carlina was an up and coming star in the White Order's
Carluan temple," Rei said at last, sighing out the words more than
speaking them.  "She was effective enough to draw the attention of the
Nightmistress, and so I was assigned to get close to her, gain her trust."
     "Dangerous," Minako remarked, her tone even, "for a Sister."
     "I was something of a star myself," Rei reminded her.  "And I
was very good at what I did.  I got close to her, seduced her, made her
fall for me.  Hard."
     "Oh, boy," Minako groaned.  She didn't sound surprised.  I know
I wasn't.  I'd assumed it was something like that after the exchange
between the two women back in the tunnels.
     "The better to crush an enemy," Rei said with a mirthless smile.
"But when I discovered her connection to the Inquisition, her work with
captured Sisters, well ... I decided to make an example of her."
     Okay.  I was officially regretting having brought this up.
     "In the throes of passion, a person is vulnerable, you know.  In
ways they can't imagine.  I worked her with all my skill, insinuated
myself within her innermost defences, and laid her soul bare.  Then I
wove a black spell there.  A trap."
     "One that you could trigger with your shadow," I said.
     "Yes.  In the end I took what information she had and left her in a
very ... publicly humiliating state, while I rescued two Sisters slated for
'interrogation'.  I intended to let her stew for a while in her abject failure,
then trigger the spell at an opportune later date."
     "And triggering the spell would do what, exactly?" I asked.  Hell,
I'd come this far.  Might as well go all the way.
     "It would allow me to take control of her.  For a short time, but
long enough to make her do something personally humiliating, at the
very least.  Depending on where she was, I might even cause her to strike
a damaging blow to the White Order."
     "I had no idea you could do that," Minako said into the silence
that followed that statement.  'I mean, that's ... it's ..."
     "Very dark magick?  Yes, it is," Rei said, not meeting her gaze.
"Some of the darkest, cast out of malice and hate.  And if you plumbed
the depths of my past as a Sister, you'd find more than one instance that
would shock you."
     "But you didn't use it against her," I said, grabbing the back of
Rei's seat and leaning into the space between the two girls.  "In the
tunnels.  Even though you could have."
     Minako looked over at her, but Rei continued to stare out the
window for long moments.
     "I couldn't," she said at last, very softly.  "I turned my back on
that life, all of it.  My shadow reacted to my anger, that was what you
saw.  But I couldn't do it.  Even though I still hate her for what she did."
     I was close enough to smell the scent of her hair and see the pulse
throbbing in her neck.  It was a little discomfiting, but I ignored the rush
of heat and concentrated on the girl herself.
     "I guess that proves your true nature more than anything you
could say," I told her, willing her to believe it.
     "You saw.  I was tempted."
     "But you didn't give in."
     "Rei," Minako said.  "I'm very glad that you resisted temptation,
even when things were bleak.  But now that you're Nightmistress, are
you going to be able to stay above this stuff?"
     Rei leaned back, her hair brushing against my hand where I was
gripping her seatback, impossibly soft.  There was nothing soft about her
eyes, though.
     "What choice do I have?"
     "That's not very comforting, babe," Minako shot back.
     "Isn't it a little like an alcoholic getting a job in a bar?" I added,
easing my hand out of the silken trap.
     "This isn't just about me anymore."  Stubborn.
     "I admire your sense of duty and all, Rei, but I care about what
happens to you.  How many times have you talked about how corrosive
that life was to your heart?"
     "That's one reason I need to do this.  Listen, what if I can make a
difference?  I can guide the order, temper their excesses.  The Sisterhood
and the Maidens were once respected and revered, it was only after
Dasma's sealing that they became outcast, desperate, willing to do
anything to survive.  I have to believe that this is the right thing to do."
     "And the Maidens?" I asked.  "Will they go along?"
     "Dasma herself made me Nightmistress," Rei pointed out,
craning her head to look back at me.  "No matter what they think about
me, there's no denying that simple fact."
     "They might just make your life difficult," Minako said.  "Like
that little minx, Bella.  Or Yurina.  She strikes me as a tricky one."
     "Our order still has its rules, Minako.  If they push me, I'll bring
them back into line.  Very firmly.  If I can't do that, then I don't deserve
to be Nightmistress."
     "Sounds like a bit of a balancing act."
     "It won't be easy," Rei admitted ruefully.  "The Maidens are
accustomed to serving the Sisters, and that involved a fairly complex
relationship.  Now they have lost the most important relationship most of
them had, a big sister slash lover slash mistress slash mentor.  They'll
want to fill the void left by that loss, and grief will only make it worse."
     "I volunteer my services," Minako said, laying a comforting hand
on Rei's arm.  "I'll whip the little minxes into shape."
     "Gosh, that's big of you," Rei snorted.  "But not a very good
plan.  People deal with trauma and loss in different ways, and its hardly
uncommon for members of the order to drown their sorrows in excess, be
it for liquor, drugs, or dangerous sex.  Don't be fooled by their submissive
exteriors, Minako.  I shouldn't have to tell you that."
     "Wait," Minako said slowly.  "Are you telling me that these girls
are bereft, lonely, all het up, and you're the only one qualified to give
them the cruel bitch-goddess action they require?"
     "You really have a way with words," Rei sighed, a crooked half-
smile creeping to her lips.  "But it's something like that, yes.  Except now
the Dark Lady is free, and her presence should do a lot to keep the girls
satisfied.  In the short run, at any rate."
     "Any idea where she might be?" I asked, glad to turn the
conversation away from all this extreme sex talk.
     "No," Rei admitted.  "Part of me hopes she stays away for a
while, at least until I can try to get a feel for how the Maidens are
reacting to everything.  But frankly, we can use all the help we can get.
Even if Peorth can tell us why Wynneth wants the key, we still have to
find her and kill her.  If Ami is right about her being the first vampire,
then she's even more ancient, and thus more dangerous, then we first
thought."
     "First things first," Minako said.  "We pull off this daring plan
and write another page in the legend of Minako Aino, Outlaw Genius."
     "Hang on there, genius," I shot back.  "We haven't gotten to the
last chapter yet."
     "Why, Ranma.  Do you doubt me?"
     "Mamoru was right.  None of our plans so far have worked out
the way we planned."
     "So?  That means we're due!"
     Somehow, that thought didn't make me feel any better.
     We pulled into a dark parking garage and Minako slipped the car
into a spot.  We'd only just gotten out when Mamoru pulled up beside us.
He and Usagi got out of the front, Ami and Makoto from the back.
     "So," he said.  "We're really doing this?"
     "Nobody is going to get hurt," Usagi assured him.
     "Famous last words, Usako."
     "We do this right, we'll be in and out before they know what hit
them," Minako announced.  "And we're one step closer to finding a way
to end this vampire bitch once and for all."
     "I hear that," Makoto grumbled.  She didn't look happy, but I
supposed I couldn't blame her.  No matter what, it had to be hard having
Yurina so close.
     Quick hugs were exchanged, then we parted with soft calls for
luck.  Outside the night was clear, and the red light of Nemesis tainted
everything with its glow.  Minako, Rei, and I moved through the
shadows, cutting down a narrow, garbage-strewn alleyway that linked
with a narrow laneway.  That led us on to a courtyard hemmed in by
glass and steel towers, and we stopped with our destination in sight.
     "That's it," Rei murmured.  The loading dock was well lit by
harsh white light, one big roll-up door with a smaller steel door beside it.
The small door had a keypad and what looked like some kind of hand
scanner next to it.  Fairly high security, but nothing that would arouse
suspicion, I was guessing.
     "It looks like just the back of some office tower," I whispered.
     "That's the idea," Rei said in a low voice.  "It allows the
Inquisition to operate in plain sight, removed from the ground of the
temple.  If anything were to go wrong, I'll bet you nobody would be able
to link this place to the White Order."
     "This is probably not the time to ask," Minako said, crowding up
behind me, "but how much do we trust Yurina's intel on this place?"
     "The information is good," Rei assured her.  "Yurina is nothing if
not thorough."
     "It isn't her thoroughness I'm worried about, Rei."
     "She'd have a hard time explaining to Dasma that she sent the
Nightmistress into a trap.  Besides, she loves nothing more than giving
the White Order a black eye."
     "So we have an idea of where they'll be holding Peorth," I said,
adjusting my long coat absently.  "Assuming she's actually here."
Minako reached up and tweaked my collar, her warm fingers brushing
lightly against my neck.  I pretended not to notice, so she did it again.
     "She'll be here," Rei confirmed, rolling her eyes at Minako's antics.
"They'll want to keep her close at hand, someplace secure.  They have no
idea this facility has been compromised."  She reached inside her long red
coat and drew out a slender black case.
     "Oh, ho," Minako murmured.  "What have we here?"
     "Something I didn't want to tell Usagi about," Rei said.  "A little
legacy from my bad days that the girls still had handy."
     Something she didn't want Usagi knowing about?  That didn't
sound good.  I watched as she opened the case to reveal a lining of
crimson silk, etched with strange symbols.  Lying in that soft bed was
some kind of paper doll.
     No.  I knew what this was.  We'd seen them during our fight in
the tunnels.
     "A talisman?" Minako asked, raising one eyebrow.  "I didn't
know you could ..."
     "I can't," Rei said.  "This one was invested with power during its
construction so that it could be triggered by someone using a code word."
     "So instead of blasting our way in, we send out a decoy to get
killed?" I asked.
     "Not quite," Rei said gravely.  She picked up the doll, made of
some heavy, creamy paper.  There was a smear of what had to be blood
from the head to the crude feet, and a long blond strand of hair was
wrapped around it.  Rei held the doll in front of her and said the code
word.
     "Carlina."
     Oh.
     The doll shimmered with light, and then the Vestra Carlina Val
Cassanda was standing there in front of us.  Minako gawked for a
moment, then let out a low whistle.
     "Mistress," Carlina said to Rei in a tone utterly unlike the one I'd
heard her use in their past encounter.  "How may I serve you?"  She was
wearing one of those white robes, but she looked a little different.
Younger, but not by much.  I wondered if the vestra had any idea Rei had
taken more than her pride after seducing her.  I was guessing no.
     "Wait," Rei commanded.
     "Your will, my mistress."
     "Man, that's creepy," I said, eyeing the docile Vestra.
     "You took souvenirs, huh?" Minako asked, giving the fake
Carlina the once over.  "Kept this around for a rainy day?"
     "Something like that," Rei said evenly.  "And now that day has
come."
     "She can open that door?" I asked.
     "No, the talisman won't pass muster with systems that
sophisticated."
     "Then what good is she?" I asked.
     "We need that door open," Rei said patiently.  "So we're going to
convince the Inquisition to open it for us."
     I opened my mouth to say something, then closed it as I heard a
rumble that sounded like thunder, then the sound of glass breaking.
Time for talk was over.
     Showtime.

***

     Usagi ran her fingers lightly over her brooch as Ami went over
everything again.
     "Remember," the girl told her for the umpteenth time.  "If things
get hairy, use one of the escape routes.  I'll keep you covered until you
can change back."
     "Innocent little Usagi Tsukino, friend of the White Order, out for
a stroll," Usagi said.  "I know, Ami.  I'm just going to get the Crusaders
riled up, that's all."  She loved her girls, but they could be a little
overprotective.  She'd done much more dangerous things than this.  Of
course, she felt a little guilty about the deception she was about to pull
off, but she really couldn't just go to the temple and ask them to release
Peorth.  Not without explaining how she knew a lot of things she
shouldn't.
     "Ready?" Makoto asked, rolling her shoulders.  She seemed glad
to have something to take her mind off of things, and Usagi grinned at
her.
     "You bet," she said.  "Let's do it."
     Light flared around her as the others changed.  Then it was her
turn.  She triggered her transformation, magick rippling over her with
that little thrill that still took her breath away.
     Minako had done a great job with the new costume template.
Usagi's hair still streamed down past her shoulders, but now the long
tresses were an exotic colour that shaded somewhere in the territory
between deep red, lustrous purple and dark cerise.  The buns atop her
head were longer, too, and the moon symbol on her forehead a black,
inverted crescent.  She raised her arms, gauzy robes fluttering
languorously in the breeze.
     "Damn," Jupiter whispered.
     "It really is shocking how much you look like her," Mercury
agreed.
     "Let's hope the Crusade agrees," Moon said, pitching her voice
deeper, letting it rasp lightly in her throat.  "What do you think, my
Tuxedo Lover?"
     "I think you're having too much fun," Tux said, throwing his
cape back over his broad shoulders.  "As usual."
     "Okay, let's get started," Mercury said as Moon stuck out her tongue
in a very un-goddess-like gesture.  She closed her eyes and held her hands
out in front of her.  At first, it seemed that nothing was happening, but
soon Moon noticed a heavy mist gathering around them, rising quickly
and spilling along the streets like a phantom river.
     "Impressive," Jupiter said, nodding.  "But it'll be better with
lightning."
     "Showtime, Princess," Tux said.  "Don't worry about anything.
You won't see me, but I'll be close."
     She nodded, then rose up on her tip toes and planted a lingering
kiss on his mouth.  He returned it, his hands brushing down over her
shoulders and leaving goosebumps in their wake before releasing her.
     "I know you will," she whispered, her eyes gleaming.  He shot
her a quick smile, then disappeared into the thickening mist.
     "Ready?" Mercury asked.
     "Ready," Moon confirmed.  "Let's do it."
     She kept close to the forward edge of the mist, striding forward
confidently as it spilled out onto the street in front of the Crusade's secret
headquarters.  She still wasn't sure she understood why the Crusade
needed such a thing, although it was lucky for them that Peorth was here.
Usagi would not have wanted to try this stunt at the main temple.  She'd
probably end up having to face the Lady Lumine herself.
     She noticed three uniformed security guards gathered at the
windows facing the street.  The mist had already gotten their attention.
Well, time to ramp things up a bit.
     Her tiara was now a black rose, and she threw it so that it arced
out of the concealing wall of white mist, smashing through a window at
one side of the building, spinning through the high-ceilinged lobby
behind the startled guards, and exiting through another window at the far
side before returning to her hand.  Right on cue, small but impressive
bolts of lightning started lighting up the cloudbank behind her.
     "Lackeys of Alieva!" she shouted, ignoring the pang of guilt at
the slur.  This was for a good cause, after all.  "Guard dogs of the White
Order!  I!  Have!  RETURNED!"
     On that last word, a huge bolt of lightning arced up from behind
her, throwing her into stark relief and shattering the air with its roar.
Moon tried not to wince.  Goddesses weren't afraid of thunder, certainly
not thunder they were supposed to be causing.
     The lights in the lobby went out as the bolt hit its target, knocking out
power to the block.  All according to plan, she thought smugly.  The
emergency lights came on quickly, but they'd expected that.  The idea
was to cause as much chaos as possible and disrupt as many systems,
although the lingering interference effect was still playing havoc with
communications and scanning equipment, which would both hamper and
help their efforts.
     "Come now!  Have none of you the courage to face me without
your goddess?" she taunted.  She threw in an evil laugh for good
measure, tossing her hair back and planting her hands on her hips.
     As if on cue, the lobby began to fill with people.  Doors flew open
as the guards pulled nasty looking assault rifles from under the reception
desk.  Men and women in robes and armour of white and gold streamed
into the open space, armed with an alarming assortment of staves,
swords, axes, and more mundane weapons.
     More than she'd expected, but not a problem.  She just had to get
them to chase her away from the building ...
     "You there!  Hold, in the name of Alieva!"
     From buildings on all sides of the square, Crusaders began
spilling out, cutting off her escape route.  That had definitely not been
part of the plan.  Those buildings didn't even belong to the White Order!
How had they ...?
     For a moment, Moon just stared at the rapidly advancing tide of
white uniforms, her sinister grin fixed rigidly on her face as the wind
began to stir.
     "Oh, shitburgers," she whispered.

***

     The emergency lighting back here was effective, but it wasn't
nearly as bright as the main lights had been, and there were enough
shadows for V and I to skirt the perimeter while fake Carlina got ready to
put on a show for the cameras.  V and Mars had changed their costumes
to black bodysuits, and both girls tied masks around their faces.  I got
one, too.  Black, to match my coat.  Sure, Carlina was going to know it
had been us who'd done the deed, but we didn't want any video footage or
eyewitnesses going to the authorities with a story of the senshi assaulting
an office building.
     I didn't think Kendra would be as forgiving of that as she'd apparently
been about the incident at the fountain.
     Right on cue, fake Carlina came running out of the shadows,
shouting to raise hell as she made for the door.  Moments later a fireball
streaked out of the darkness, missing her but impacting the steel roll-up
door with a gratifying amount of noise.  The door was barely scratched;
looked like it was a good thing we were tricking the Inquisition into
opening the door for us.
     And, a few seconds later, they did just that.
     There'd been only one potential snag in our plan.  If Carlina was
stationed back here, rather than at the front, the jig would be up.  But I'd
figured the ambitious Vestra would want to be in the middle of things,
and apparently I'd called that one.
     A whole squad of armoured Inquisitors rushed out through the
door, backed up by two women in robes.  As they charged into the alley,
intent on saving their Vestra, V and I dropped down behind them.  V
charged inside.  My role was to take care of things out here.
     Heh.  Payback time.
     I cold-cocked both of the priestesses before they had any idea
what was happening.  The fake Vestra managed to keep everyone's
attention on her while Mars threw enough fire around to keep the bully-
boys focussed on her.  I waded into the troops, dealing out savage blows
left and right, liberating a staff from one of the guys as he folded like a
cheap card table.
     After that, things got interesting for a few seconds.  These guys
were big, and they'd been trained in how to fight.  That was just what the
doctor ordered, and I threw myself into the fray, drawing two of the
remaining seven fighters towards me before sweeping in low with the
staff, letting it slide out until I was gripping the end.  I took both of them
down, then kept spinning and let the staff fly free to spear a third guard,
who'd thought I was unaware of him coming in from behind.
     Two of the remaining four fell back behind the others, drawing
pistols as they escorted the Vestra quickly back towards the safety of the
building.  I let them go for the moment; I didn't think they'd risk
shooting with their own guys between us, and they were doing just what
we wanted.  One of the two remaining staff holders started spinning his
staff until it was a blur, grinning at me from under his hood.  Yeah, he
was good.  The other pulled at his staff, suddenly holding two shorter
rods which he twirled expertly.
     A down-home, good old-fashioned martial arts fight.  Oh, life is
good.
     The two separated, the first breaking his smooth rhythm suddenly
by swinging down at my head as the second feinted.  The staff wielder
hadn't counted on my speed, though.  I dodged, spun, and caught his
partner with an open-handed strike to the chest that sent him flying as I
snatched one of his fighting sticks from his hand.  Then I spun back in
time to block the staff with it.  The impact rippled up my arm as I
redirected the force of the blow, sending the staff skittering off to one
side.  He was fast, trying to use the momentum to spin and catch me off-
guard, but my weapon was smaller and lighter, and I lunged in, jabbing it
into his solar plexus with plenty of force behind the shot, taking the wind
out of him even through his armour.  Then I pivoted on one foot and
caught him across the jaw with a spinning kick.
     And down he went.  A decent fighter, but not really in my league.
Damn, I missed big-league martial artists.  When all this was over,
maybe it would be time to check out what Saeni had to offer in the area
of fight-crazy challengers.
     Mars danced quickly through the carnage, sprinkling black rose
petals among the downed combatants to keep them out of action, as I fell
back to the doorway.  The door was still open, and inside I found the
layout just like Yurina had told us it would be.  The hallway ran down
alongside the main loading bay, then turned and emptied into the rear
lobby.  Smoking holes in the wall marked the spots where V had dealt
with security cameras.
     The real problem would be the lobby behind the bay.  It was a
chokepoint; the rear security station there was behind magickally
reinforced glass and controlled the only door deeper into the building.
We were counting on the chaos to keep the Inquisitors off-balance.
     I made the turn and found the two bruisers who'd been with
Carlina sprawled on the floor.  And out in the lobby, V and Carlina were
locked in a fierce struggle.  Or that was what it looked like.  In reality, as
they spun around in a carefully choreographed brawl, V managed to
unleash her beams to devastating effect, missing Carlina but hitting the
glass several times and taking out the door on our side of the man trap.
     Which was a problem for the guys behind the glass.  The trap
was designed, so Yurina had told us, so that the inner and outer doors
would not be opened at the same time.  With our door damaged, theirs
shouldn't be able to be opened.  In theory.  She'd also told us, though,
there was an override inside the security station for emergencies.
     I wondered if I wanted to know where she gotten this
information, decided that was a question for another time.  V and fake
Carlina continued their little ballet, V managing to take out the gun
turrets that had deployed from hidden positions above the security station
as they "fought".  The guards hadn't managed to get off any shots, not
with their Vestra in the line of fire that way.
     Yurina had been right.  They did have a way to override the man-
trap safeties and open the inner door.
     Unfortunately, that procedure also dropped a heavy steel shutter
down in the hallway behind me.  Mars barely made it through in time.
Well, getting out had just gotten harder.
     Four more Inquisitors had charged into the lobby, two with
staves, which I was coming to understand was a favoured weapon of
Alieva's order, one with a glowing sword, and one with an assault rifle.
They quickly spread out, trying to surround the wildly struggling
combatants.
     "You get to the security booth," Mars whispered in my ear.  "I'll
help V subdue this lot."
     I nodded.
     "Hold!" one of the guards, a tall, broad-shouldered guy with
longish blonde hair barked.  "We have you trapped, witch!  Release the
Vestra or we will use lethal force!"
     No matter how clever this plan, I was not happy at seeing these
guys pointing weapons at V.  I streaked through the lobby, dropping the
gunman with a savage elbow to the head on the way by.  The others
didn't have time to deal with me, as Mars came through hot on my tail,
throwing black roses like Tux's evil counterpart.  Bad thought, that, and
I didn't pursue it.
     They'd left a rear guard to hold the inner door, and he tried to get it
closed as I sprang through the smashed outer door.  I dropped, rolled
across the floor and under his panicked barrage of bullets, and came up
fast enough to catch the door before it could latch.  It was heavy, and
with all my weight behind the lunge the door caught the last defender and
threw him back to land heavily, his gun sliding down the polished floor.
     I knocked him back down with a short punch before he could do
more than rise half-way, and before I could turn back to the others, they
were plowing their way through the door.  The camera in here was
quickly zapped, and we were in business.
     Now we just needed to get into the security station itself.  Mars
and I stood guard as V pulled out her Crescent Compact and got to work.
Unfolding the unit, she positioned it above the keypad and set it to work.
There was one of those scanners for hands as well, but apparently we had
that covered.  Fake Carlina cheerfully dragged the guy I'd knocked out
over to the door and pressed his hand against the scanner.
     "Middon?  What's going on?" a voice crackled out of a small,
round grille mounted on the wall above the keypad.  "The cameras are
all out, I can't see anything!  Middon?"
     "Remain calm," Carlina announced as V's little doohickey
hummed and beeped happily to itself.  "I have triumphed over the
intruders.  They have all been neutralised."
     "Vestra?  Is that you?"  I felt a little guilty at how relieved the
guy sounded.  I had to remind myself that these guys were as ruthless as
the Sisterhood, and we were being a lot gentler with them than they
would be of our positions were reversed.  Like at the fountain this
afternoon, for instance.
     "Yes.  Stand back, I'm coming in."  The Compact beeped,
numbers flashing on its small screen, and the keypad followed suit.  We
all stayed out of sight as something inside the door clunked heavily,
allowing fake Carlina to push her way inside.
     "Thank Alieva you're safe!" the remaining guard cried as she
entered.  "I've called for re ... gack!"
     I charged in to find a wiry young guy with dark hair and the
familiar white uniform doubled over, Carlina's fist buried in his gut.  I
dropped him with a quick chop, and V pushed past me, finding a place to
plug her compact into the system.  Then she sat back in one of the
contoured chairs and grinned at us.
     "Let's cause some trouble," she said, reaching out and switching
it on.  Clearly, someone was still holding a grudge from our earlier fight
with Carlina and her people.  I watched the screens flicker and twitch as
Ami's attack program wormed its way into the building's systems.
     "Is that the front?" Mars asked, peering at one bank of monitor
screens.  Many of them were dark, but the ones that still had picture
showed a lot of folks milling around and brandishing weapons.  "There
sure are a lot of them. I hope the others are okay."
     "They'll be fine," V told her.  "As long as they follow the plan.
Internal security is now under our control, and Ami's program is working
beautifully.  Man, I wish I'd had her on some of my earlier jobs."
     "How does it look?" I asked.  I was a little jittery, to tell the truth.
Intelligence and the talisman were Rei's job, and security systems and
infiltration Minako's.  Me, I was useless with all this high-tech stuff.
From here on in, we were in V's hands.  And Ami's, too.
     "Amazing," V said with a low whistle.  "That girl has a real
future in mischief."
     "The guard mentioned calling for help, I think," Mars pointed
out.
     "Got it.  The program is closing all interior security barriers,
scrambling communications on the lines within the building and the ones
to the outside ... ah.  There."  She pointed at the screen in front of her,
where a flashing dot appeared in red on what looked like a floor plan.
"That's where they're holding the prisoner."
     "Eight floors down," Mars breathed.  "At the very bottom, as we
guessed.
     "No sweat," V told her, pushing the chair away as she stood.
"We've got a clear path.  Everybody else has to deal with a hostile
security system, plus we've triggered fire suppression systems and
everything else that's controlled by the main system.  There aren't many
guards down there, looks like everybody's out front."
     "You," Mars said to the talisman Carlina, who'd been waiting
patiently.  "Come with us."
     "Of course, Mistress," fake Carlina replied breathily, bowing her
head.  "I serve your will."
     It was damned creepy, seeing that adoring expression on Carlina's
face.  Nothing like the black hatred that the real Carlina had shown
towards Rei.
     "Is she still useful?" V asked.  "We've got the building's systems on
our side now."
     "We might need her if anything goes wrong," Mars told us.  "As a
hostage.  Let's not get sloppy."
     I winced at that, but fake Carlina didn't seem to mind being
spoken about as a potential human shield.  Of course not, she wasn't
human.  Man, this took some getting used to.
     "We can't stay in contact with the attack program," V told us as
we ran down the hall.  "Wireless comm is still out.  But I can interface
with it from remote points along our path, make sure there are no
surprises.  Here, these stairs."
     We pushed through the stairwell door.  Another one of those
heavy shutters had dropped to prevent access to the upper floors, but our
path was clear.
     "I'll go first," I said, but Mars stopped me and nodded to the
talisman.
     "You," she said.  "Take the lead."
     "Of course, my Mistress," Carlina said with a sweet smile.
     "Creepy," I muttered again, but nobody paid any attention.
     In the dim glow of the emergency lights, we started down.

***

     These guys, Moon thought frantically, are just not getting with
the plan.  She dashed straight ahead, only to have a small group of
armoured Crusaders emerge from the mist and cut off her escape.
Cursing under her breath, she changed direction, howls of outrage from
behind telling her that Tuxedo Mask's roses had once more covered her
rear.
     She poured on the speed, aiming for the wall of mist in front of
her, only to see it retreat out of reach.  Damn, damn, DAMN.  It was the
Vestra and her Wind Magicks, of course.  Mercury was locked in a
constant struggle against Carlina's power, and although the noble Vestra
hadn't been able to clear the area of the mist, she had managed to keep
Moon from escaping into it.
     "There is no escape, you venomous snake!" Carlina called as she
led a squad of Crusaders in from the flank.  "Surrender!"
     This was really getting irritating.  Carlina and her group had been
hidden in a nearby sandwich shop, outflanking her initial attempt to
escape in an explosion of glass and a torrent of wind.  Moon just couldn't
believe they'd done that.  It was illegal, after all, breaking into that shop
and destroying the whole front of the building.  The Crusade wasn't
supposed to do things like that!
     Well, neither were the senshi, actually, but they were sneaking
into Crusader HQ to stop them from making a horrible mistake, so it was
at least a little different.  And anyway ...
     "Take her!" Carlina cried.  "In Alieva's name, bring her down!"
     And anyway, this was beginning to get ugly.  Bullets cracked and
whined as squads of Crusaders opened fire from their defensive positions
around the building's lobby.  They were prevented from bringing more
firepower to bear only by the uncertainty that the mist provided; they
couldn't always be sure where their own people were.
     And if she were really Dasma, guns probably wouldn't have been
a very big deal.  But she wasn't, and they damned well were.  She waved
her arms around frantically, hoping it looked as though she were
summoning some dangerous, crazy-ass spell, and at that moment
lightning again strafed the ground around Carlina and her people,
causing them to break formation and take cover.  She had no idea if the
Crusaders actually believed she was Dasma, or were just using so much
force on general principal, but one thing was for sure.  They were serious
about taking her out.  At this rate, she'd be lucky to be taken alive.
     If she could just reach one of the alleyways that led from the
immediate area, she could lead the defenders away, find some place to
hide and change back.  As it was, they were still much too close to the
building for comfort.  And she wasn't going to be able to keep them
occupied for long, not hemmed in like this.
     She changed direction again, leaping for a bulbous fist of opaque
mist that billowed out to meet her, but again the wind rose and pushed it
back.  Damn it!  If only she could contact the others, coordinate a new
plan to take advantage of the situation.  This communications blackout
was getting to be very troublesome.
     Moon skidded to stop as a low sound tore through the air,
reverberating in her bones.  Her flesh crawled at the shuddering, grinding
cacophony that rose from a place below audibility to push all other sound
away.
     They've got a secret weapon, she thought dimly as the air around
her seemed to tear.  That's just swell.  What else could go wrong?
     The sound rose, pulsing through the soft parts of her body, and
she stumbled just as it peaked, reaching a nerve-rending crescendo that
broke over her with physical force.
     Something plunged down from above, striking the road not
twenty feet in front of her with such force that Moon was thrown onto her
back, chunks of asphalt exploding away from the impact.  As she lay
there, breathless, she felt the ground beneath her giving way.
     "Oh, you gotta be KIDDING m ..."  Her hoarse whisper was cut off as
the ground caved in totally, and she rolled down the sudden slope
towards the centre of the crater.  She bounced off of a chunk of rock, pain
flaring along her back, and Moon desperately tucked herself in tight,
rolling with the impact and trying desperately to regain her feet.
Unfortunately the slope was just too unstable, dirt and rock cascading
down towards the bottom, and she tumbled the rest of the way, ending up
on her hands and knees in a pool of water being formed by a stream from
a broken pipe.
     Dizzily she shook a curtain of glossy hair out of her eyes, peering
around the bottom of the crater.  Whatever this new weapon was, she was
damned lucky it hadn't scored a direct hit.  The road must have been
driven down at least twenty feet at the point of impact.  Moon started to
rise, then froze as something moved close by.
     She wasn't alone down here.
     Light flared as she summoned her sceptre, stumbling to her feet
while a dark shape flowed across the broken landscape towards her.
Twin points of yellow light flared as she brought her weapon to bear,
noticing vaguely that it had changed with the rest of her costume, now a
glossy ebon with something sinuous coiled along its length.  That was a
matter for later, however.  Right now, something was down here with her,
something with narrow, yellow eyes, and ...
     "Princessss?"
     "Banri?"  Moon gaped, letting the sceptre fall as the strange
serpent girl rose from her crouch.  Banri's scaled bodysuit was torn and
dark blood streaked her face and arm.  "What ... what are you doing
here?"
     "Pleassse, Princesss.  My Lady," Banri implored, and it was then
that Moon saw the figure lying motionless at the very bottom of the
crater.  Dasma.  Her fall had caused this?  Frantic, Moon pushed past
Banri and fell to her knees in the muddy water at the fallen goddess's
side.  Her face was pale and streaked with mud and blood, and she was
not moving.  Gods, what could have done this to a GODDESS?
     "We've got to get out of here," Moon said, banishing her sceptre
and scooping the insensate goddess up into her arms.  "This is a very bad
place for her right now, Banri."
     "Hurry, Princesss," Banri breathed, holding her right arm close to
her body as she peered upwards.  "The barrier did not ssslow it.  It
comesss."
     "What ...?"
     "IT COMESSSSS!"
     Oh, boy.  Ignoring the tiny sparks of pain from her graceless fall
into the pit, Moon gathered herself and sprang upwards.  She had to
bound from rock to rock to reach the top, Banri scrambling after her with
a sinuous grace that belied her injuries.
     She reached the roadway to find that the situation had regressed
into an all-out war.  It was clear to her what had happened.  Believing
that the Crusade had been responsible for the mysterious explosion,
Tuxedo Mask and the two senshi had taken off the kid gloves and
unleashed a furious assault.  Lightning strafed the face of the Crusader
tower, sending the troops sheltering there running for their lives, and the
mist was dissipating as Mercury called up a focussed stream of water to
batter at two armoured squads trying to reach the pit.
     Tux was there, of course, about to throw himself in after her.  She
favoured him with a breathless smile as she reached the top, Dasma
ensconced in her arms.
     "We need to go," she blurted before he could say anything.
"Fast."
     "Hold!" a voice cried out, and Moon growled with frustration as
Carlina once more pushed forward, backed by the remains of her squad.
"You ..."  She broke off, eyes widening as she took in the sight of one
Dasma carrying another.
     "Back up," Tux told her, levelling his cane like a sword.
"You're in over your head."
     "Surrender," she shot back as her people spread out to flank
them.  "Your cause is hopeless.  Even now ..."
     "Too late," Banri exclaimed, emerging from the pit and staring
upwards.  "It comesss!  NOW!"
     And the sky split apart.

***

     Okay, I had to admit it.  For once, one of our plans was working
out just like we'd thought.  We'd reached sub-level eight having
encountered almost no resistance, and now V was jacking into the
security system again.
     "Yup," she announced cheerfully.  "They're not having any luck
re-establishing control of the system.  Everyone left inside is trapped and
isolated and unable to communicate with each other or the outside.  It's
taking them time to cut through all the barriers.  They'll never reach us in
time.  Damn, Ami does good work."
     "What can we expect?" I asked, looking down the darkened
hallway.  "They must know what our target is."
     "Knowing is only half the battle, my dear Ranma," V chided me.
"They can't get down here.  Thanks to Ami's little friend, the Inquisition
has to fight for every inch of space against their own systems."
     "But there are guards already down here, right?" I pressed.
     "Huh," V muttered.  "There's the cell block, but no guards."
     "Suspicious," Mars said.
     "Whatever," I shrugged.  "Let's just get her and get out."
     We headed down the hall towards our target, moving quickly.
There was another control station leading into the cell block area, but this
one was empty.  Okay, there was only one prisoner according to the
security system, but seriously.  Carlina had done everything but engrave
an invitation to come take Peorth back.  Even if they thought they'd stop
us long before this point, no way would they leave the cells unguarded.
     Time for that patented bad feeling.
     "It's quiet," I said softly.
     "Yeah, too quiet," V agreed with an exaggerated scowl.
     "What are you doing?"
     "What?  When someone says 'It's quiet', someone else has to
say, 'Yeah, TOO quiet'.  It's like a rule.  Get up to speed, man."
     "Are you finished?" Mars asked, rolling her eyes.
     "You people," V pouted, "have no sense of the dramatic."
     I was about to reply when a gentle shudder went through the
floor.  It felt like something heavy being dropped, but we waited a
moment and the vibration was not repeated.
     "You," Mars snapped, pointing at Carlina.  "Go try the door."
     "Of course, Mistress," fake Carlina said with an adoring gleam in
her eye.  I watched her go, swinging her hips and tossing her long hair.
Yeah, so very, very wrong.  I knew she wasn't real, but, well, she sure
seemed real.  I wondered what other uses the Sisterhood might have put
their talismans to.  Then I stopped wondering.  Quickly.  Some questions
I really don't want answers to.
     "The door is usually controlled by the person inside the booth," V
said.  "But Ami's magi-tech worm has overriden it.  It's unlocked."
     She was right.  Carlina opened the door easily.
     "The gun turrets and gas nozzles are also off-line," V smirked as
we crossed to the door.  "They probably pulled out expecting the
defences to deal with us.  Foolish, thinking the Highview Cat could be
thwarted so ea ..."
     Something was behind us.  I grabbed both girls instinctively,
pushing them to the floor as the air above us rippled with the passage of
something moving very fast.  I dragged both girls up with me, only to
find that the area was not as undefended as we'd thought.
     What an astonishing development.
     "Metal golems!" Mars shouted as we spun to find huge hulking forms
right behind us.  "Yurina didn't mention these!"
     "They didn't show up in the system, either!" V cursed, firing a
beam at the nearest one.  The hulking metal defender staggered as the
beam hit its chest, then kept on coming.  As I watched, two more seemed
to just form out of the walls, joining the three that had already cut off our
escape.
     "Okay," V gritted, focussing her beam as the golem's chest began
to glow red.  "Who went and thought this was going well?"
     "What difference does that make?" I asked, backing towards the
door.  Five of them now, with more coming.  Crap.
     "It makes all the difference!"
     "Ranma!" Mars shouted.  "Go grab Peorth, we'll keep them
busy!"
     I didn't want to leave them, but this whole thing would be for
nothing if we didn't get her out.  Turning, I ran through the doorway.  I
noticed something on the floor as I ran, a small paper doll with a hole in
it.  RIP fake Carlina.
     There were doors past the control booth, heavy steel and set into
the wall with small slots at eye level.  I quickly found the one I was
looking for.
     She lay on her back on the floor, spread-eagled in a glowing
circle.  It looked like the lines of the circle were holding her in place, but
I was no expert.  Although, after the last couple of days, I'd had my fill of
magick circles, that was for damned sure.
     This door was still locked.  On top of the high-tech locks, there
was a simple, old-fashioned key hole.  The keys were probably back in
that security booth, but I didn't have time to go looking.  I called up my
chi, cupped my hand, and thrust my palm at the lock.  It went crunch,
and I grabbed the door and pulled it open.
     She didn't move at first, although her eyes were open, staring at
the ceiling, where there was a matching pattern to the one on the floor.
She matched V's description, right down to the markings on her forehead
and cheeks.
     "I have told you the truth," she said after a moment, her flat tone
not disguising the lilt of an accent.  "If you will not believe me, why
continue to ask questions?"
     "Philosophy's not my strong suit," I told her.  "I'm just here to
rescue you."
     Her body jerked like she'd been stung, and she craned her head
so she could see me.  Her eyes went so wide I thought they might pop
right out of her head.
     "What?" she whispered, taking in my outfit.  "Who are you?"
     "A friend of V's," I told her, pulling the mask off and crossing the
bare steel room to stand near her head.  She stared at me with an intensity
that was more than a little unnerving.
     "You," she whispered weakly.  "It's you."
     "Last time I checked, I was me, yeah.  What's this thing,
anyway?" I asked.
     "A containment ward.  You ... non!  Don't touch it!"
     Too late.  I thrust my hand down onto the edge of the outer circle,
chi flaring around it.  There was a feeling like pressure against my skin
and a slight pulse of warmth from the key.  Then the circle dimmed and
went out.
     Cool.
     "What ... how ...?"
     "Later.  We gotta go," I told her.  "Can you stand?"
     She tried but didn't make it off the floor.  Spectacular.  I scooped
her up and ran out the door, headed back towards the sounds of battle.
     "You," she said softly.  "You are ... you are real."
     "Yeah, in real trouble.  V!  How we doing?"
     "Not good!"  Oh, hell.  That figured.  If those things could keep
us trapped down here long enough the Inquisition would break Ami's
program and we'd have to fight up through eight floors of angry people
in pretty white robes and armour.  Plus, Usagi wouldn't be able to keep
the others occupied forever.
     Mars and V had fallen all the way back to the doorway, and I quickly
saw why.  Not only were the golems impervious to pain, they could fire
small metal slugs from their hands.
     Freaking spectacular.
     "No good!" V shouted as her beam finally sank into the chest of
one of the golems.  It staggered slightly but kept coming, its body
smoking hot.  "It'll take too long to melt even one of them!"
     "Tell me about it!" Mars gritted.  "They're heavily shielded against
magicks!"  Her fire wasn't doing much better against the armoured
figures.  A hail of metal slugs bounced off the wall outside, two or three
streaking through the doorway and forcing the senshi to pull back.
     "Wait here," I told Peorth, setting her gently on the floor.
     "Hey again," V said.  "Enjoying your rescue?"
     "You have no idea," Peorth said with a wan smile.  "I was hoping
to escape a little further than this, actually."
     "Stand clear," I told V and Mars.
     "Ranma, what ...?
     I had a feeling I this little trap was designed to bottle up magick
using girls like, for instance, the Sisterhood.  These golems were proof
against just about any type of magick we could throw at them.
     Once again, though, it seemed to me that the opposition had a bit
of a blind spot.
     Me.
     I put my back to the cold steel wall, letting my chi build, pool, begin
to roil.  Then I stepped out into the doorway.  Something zinged past my
ear close enough to stir my hair as I unleashed a full-power blast,
catching one of the golems full in the chest.  It was sent crashing back
into another of the things, both smashing into the far wall.  The first one
was torn nearly in half and fell to the floor, twitching weakly.  The
second staggered off the wall, its chest buckled weirdly.  I saw that it was
the one V had been trying to cut through.  The hot metal had been
warped by the impact, but ...
     Oh.  I had one of those moments when a strategy just pops into
my head.  The pieces fell into place with that delicious sense of rightness,
and I knew this would work.  I fell back, noting how close the things
were to our doorway.  Fast, Saotome.  Work fast.
     "V, Mars!  Throw some heat out there.  Cook these guys up for
me!"
     "Heat doesn't hurt them!" Mars objected.  "Nothing does, and
we don't have time ..."
     "Just do it!"
     The girls exchanged a look, then V leaned out and started hosing
the oncoming hulks down with her brilliant golden beams.  Mars popped
out down low as V pulled back to avoid a hail of slugs, bathing the entire
room with intense flame.  I winced as the heat washed back over us.  This
needed to work before we all got cooked.
     "Damn!" V growled, sweat beginning to run down her face as
Mars kept up her assault.  "Is that slowing them down?"
     "No!" Mars informed us, ducking back.  "And they're getting
hot.  The damned metal is starting to glow, Ranma!  You won't be able
to touch them!"
     "He isn't going to," Peorth said from the floor, her voice weak.
"They're too close, Warden.  We'll need to move back."
     "Yeah, V, take her into the booth," I said.  I saw what she meant,
and she was right.  "Mars, more heat, as much and as quick as you can!"
     I was grateful that she complied without pressing me for answers.
It gave me a warm feeling to know that they trusted me enough to do
what I asked in a tight spot like this.  Time for warm feelings later,
though.  Right now it was hot I was after, and hot I was getting.  Even
with her flame directed out through the door, the air in here was getting
unbearable, searing the lungs as I breathed.
     "Ranma, they're right on top of us!" she cried at last.
     "Back into the booth, hurry!" I told her.  I took a deep breath,
drawing in hot air tinged with a metallic taint.  Time it right, Saotome.
One.  Two.
     Three.
     I popped out, chi flaring and unleashed a blast.  Not at the cherry-
red armoured goon that was trying to widen the outer door, however.
No, my target was the ceiling.  Or, more precisely, the sprinkler pipes in
the ceiling.  V was right, the worm had screwed with the fire systems in
the building.  Even Mars' flame hadn't set these babies off.  But that was
all right by me.
     My blast tore through the pipes, unleashing a torrent of water on
the glowing hot metal marauders.  I ducked back into the booth just
ahead of the wave of scalding steam that billowed down the hallway.
Nice call, Peorth.  I gave it a few seconds, just long enough for the steam
to subside, then I threw myself back out of the booth and unleashed bolt
after bolt of my strongest chi attacks.
     Mars and V were close behind me, V cradling Peorth in her arms.
I waded through the doorway into the drenching spray, hammering every
golem I could see with a full power blast.  It was exhausting, but
effective.
     "Run for the hall!" I shouted, and they did.  I brought up the rear,
panting from the heat and exertion.  One golem crawled out of the steam
cloud, missing its legs but pulling itself along with its arms.  Determined
buggers.  I hit it hard with a bolt, and its body smashed against the floor,
one arm mangled, the other broken right off.  The heat, followed by the
cold water, had made the metal brittle enough that my attacks could
break it.  I backed through the door to the hall, noting with satisfaction
that more than half the attacking force was completely disabled.  The
ones that were left were badly damaged, but still able to move.
     "V!  Can we close them in there?"
     "Working on it!"  Mars had Peorth now, V fiddling with the
Crescent Compact.  A grinding noise started up from the doorway into
the security lobby and a heavy steel door dropped with a satisfying thud.
     "That won't hold them for long," Mars panted, strands of wet
hair hanging in her face as she glanced back at the security door.
     "Won't have to," V said.  "We got what we came for, let's
skeedaddle!"
     We headed back to the stairs.  My clothes were damp, but as we
started up the stairs I realised that I was still a guy.  Huh.  The hot steam
had kept me from changing.  Or had changed me back.  I thought I'd
changed somewhere between the security booth and the hall.  Well,
whatever.  That was far from the most important issue at hand.
     We ran up the stairs, and at every turn I expected a squad of
Inquisition enforcers, or more golems.  I was pleasantly surprised to be
wrong for once.  We made it up to the main floor without encountering
anyone.
     "Whoo-hoo!" V crowed as we exited onto the main floor.  "The
air's cool up here!
     "Peorth's out cold," Mars announced.
     "Let her sleep," V grinned.  "We'll wow her with tales of our
escape when she wakes up.  Come on, let's get out of here before our
luck runs out!"
     "Yeah," I told her, trying not to smile.  "TOO quiet."
     "You're doing it wrong," she scowled, then giggled as I stuck my
tongue out.  Yeah, I was a little giddy myself.  It had gotten hairy back
there, but things had worked out.  V stopped to raise the shutter that had
blocked the route to the loading dock, and I had a moment to wonder if
we'd find a welcoming committee waiting for us, denying us escape at
the very last moment.
     But the dock was empty, and we ran down the alleyway, flush
with victory.
     "How do you suppose the others are doing?" V asked.  "If things
went well, they should have the Inquisition chasing its tail by now."
     "Listen," I said as we reached the far end of the alley.  "You guys
hear that?"
     We stopped.  My blood pounded in my ears, but I was sure I
heard noise coming from the next street over.
     There.  Gunfire.  An explosion.  And screams.
     "Damn," I said.  Mars and V looked at each other.
     "Usagi," they said in unison.

***

     Chaos.
     Dust and smoke filled the air as Moon fell back against the wall,
Dasma struggling out of her arms.  Banri was at their side in a flash,
crouching protectively by her mistress's side.
     "Damn!" Tux spat, falling back as the behemoth tore through the
Crusaders foolish enough to get in its way.  "What is that thing?"
     Good question.  It stood almost twenty feet tall, covered with a
black, chitinous armour.  Its fists were like boulders and its face a
death's-head rictus, but the eyes were the worst.  They were twin flames
that guttered inside of deep pits, utterly inhuman.  And utterly without
mercy.
     It was fast.  Vicious.  And, so far, quite unstoppable.
     "That," Dasma informed them grimly, "is a Varragor."
     Ice flooded Moon's veins, and she stared dumbstruck for a
moment at the destruction that continued to trail the rampaging creature.
     "Varragor?" she asked weakly.  "Is it some kind of demon or
something?"
     "Something, indeed.  Gone from the face of Gaia for many millennia,"
Dasma said curtly, using Banri's shoulder to stand upright.  "Those first
ones unleashed the Varragor on us when our victory seemed assured.
They wreaked havoc on even our ranks, and it took our massed strength
to seal them away."
     Moon flinched as Dasma unleashed a torrent of dark energy at
the beast.  It shrugged off the attack, it's flaming eyes seeking them out
through the devastation.
     "We cannot destroy it," Dasma told her, speaking quickly.  "I am
not even certain I can seal it, but I must try.  I am the strongest, it will
pursue me ..."
     Moon didn't hear the rest.  The thing's alien gaze fell upon her,
and she knew that it marked her in that instant.  A lance of fear rimed
with ice tore into her heart, and she knew.  It meant to destroy her.  No
matter what.
     "No," Dasma breathed.  "It knows you as my blood.  Run!
Quickly!  I will hold it here!"
     The Varragor threw back its head and screamed at the crimson
moon, a sound of madness and death, swatting away the squad of
Crusaders who were trying to bring it down as though they were insects.
It leapt, flying high into the air, baying its rage, and she felt Tuxedo
Mask grab her hand and pull her away.
     "No!" she cried, turning back even as she was dragged to safety.
"Dasma, RUN!"
     Battered she may have been, but Dasma was still a goddess.  In
one motion she grabbed Banri and leapt, the girl become a coiling,
eldritch whip in her hand.  She streaked by the plunging monstrosity, and
Moon saw her strikes hit home in rapid succession even as she dodged
the thing's counterstrike.  But it seemed completely unfazed by Banri's
savage attacks, and as it hit the ground it spun in one smooth motion and
launched itself after the goddess.
     Dasma moved so fast the she seemed to blink from place to place,
but the Varragor did not slow, did not tire.  The goddess spun in place,
unleashing a virtual torrent of power from Banri, but while the creature
was staggered, nothing seemed to slow it for long.
     "It can't be real," she whispered, and she didn't realise she'd
spoken aloud until Tux answered her.
     "It's very real," he told her grimly.  "And when it finishes with
her, it's coming for you.  We have to get you away."
     "We can't run!" she objected.  "We have to ..."
     "What?  Help her?  She's a GODDESS, Princess.  If she can't
handle it, what makes you think we can?"
     She had no reply to that.  The Crusaders had regrouped and
opened fire from multiple positions, but to no discernible effect.  A small
group of heavily armed troopers rushed out into the street, flanking a
young man in robes of white and gold, and as they lay down covering fire
he unleashed a torrent of mage fire at the Varragor.  The blazing magick
splashed off its armoured hide, but it seemed that the creature had at least
noticed the attack.  It turned and charged the group, its long arms
sweeping out to scatter the defenders.  The mage threw himself clear of
the charge, but before he could run more than a few steps the beast
turned.
     What happened next was the stuff of nightmares.  The plates of
its chest cracked in the middle and opened wide, and from the writhing
darkness within a swarm of tendrils shot out, ensnaring the hapless young
man in an instant.  He screamed in terror as he was dragged back and up,
and in a flash he had been drawn inside the Varragor's chest.
     And the plates swung closed again.
     "What the HELLS?" Tuxedo Mask breathed.
     As though nothing had happened, the Varragor turned back to
Dasma, who soared above it, hurling a tempest of dark lightning down in
a lethal rain.  The Varragor hunched for a moment.
     Then it thrust out its hand and threw a stream of blazing mage
fire into the sky.
     "It ..." Moon gasped as Dasma spun away from the attack.  "It
just ..."
     "It's using his power," Tux hissed.  "Gods.  What does it take to
stop this thing?"
     Good question.  Attacks were raining down on it from all sides,
including lightning and water, which meant her senshi had joined the
fray.  As they watched, though, Dasma was hit from behind by a flare of
magick and fell from the sky, disappearing behind a nearby building.
     "The Crusaders!  They ..."
     "Took advantage of the situation," Tux growled.  "And, looking
like that, you'll be next.  Come on, we ..."
     He never got a chance to finish.  The Varragor spun in place, its
inhuman gaze finding her across the intervening space, and it screamed a
challenge.
     And charged.
     Oh no oh no oh no this is so so so BAD!  Struggling to fight
down her sudden panic, she summoned her sceptre even as she realised
that Tux had thrown himself in front of her, charging the oncoming
creature.  She caught a flash of disjointed images then, a tall, handsome
man in a tuxedo swinging his cane at the creature, spinning, striking out
again, only this time with a blur of sliver, moving, striking.  And now the
man was wearing a gleaming black breastplate trimmed with silver and
emblazoned with a strange symbol, and his cane was a sword, and he
struck with incredible speed, opening slashes in that armoured hide.
     Then the Varragor simply plunged its hands down and tore up the
roadway in one savage motion, throwing the dark-haired prince across
the plaza and into the window of a building nearly a block away.
     "NO!"  Broken free of her terrible paralysis, she levelled her
sceptre and unleashed her full power, catching the thing square in the
chest.  It staggered, slowed a moment, then, horrifyingly, it started
moving again.  She watched numbly as it waded through the blazing
stream of her power, its eyes guttering flames boring into her soul,
freezing her heart.
     (I'm coming for you.)
     Lightning and torrents of water fell upon it, and its hands flew
out, throwing mage fire out with uncanny speed and accuracy.  And the
attacks stopped.
     (I was made to kill you.)
     It advanced, step by step, and she poured her power into it in a
desperate attempt to stop it.  No one had ever stood up to her full power
before.  No one, and nothing.
     (All of you.  Defend.  Avenge.  Destroy.)
     But it just kept coming.
     Those huge arms swung together, and mage fire lanced out and hit the
stream of her power, resultant backlash throwing her off her feet.  Moon
tumbled along the ground, her sceptre spinning away out of reach.
Fetching up on her back, she was dimly aware that the ground was
shaking.  Coming.  Its coming.  Get up, get up, GET UP!
     Her hands scrabbled frantically at the cold, hard concrete, her
heart thundering in panic.  Everything moved with horrifying, syrupy
slowness.  She couldn't get her feet under her, couldn't stand, couldn't
run, and the implacable thing kept coming, nearer.  And nearer.
     And nearer.
     There was an impact, low and hard, and she threw her hands up,
screaming.  After a moment she realised that the impact had not been the
sound of the charging Varragor hitting her, and she twitched wildly,
scrambling to look up, to see what new horror awaited her.
     The Varragor stood less than five feet away, arms outstretched,
looming over her.  No, not her.  Over them.  For there was someone
between her and the Varragor, and her eyes swept past boots planted deep
into long furrows in the hard concrete, up long legs to a dark skirt, a
uniform trimmed in purple, a glossy cap of dark, shoulder length hair.
And a long glaive, held crossways in a defensive position.
     "Oh," Sailor Saturn snarled softly to the behemoth straining against
the invisible barrier that separated them by mere inches.  "I think that
will do."

***

     The princess and the others were supposed to create a diversion.
Instead, it looked like they'd started World War Three.
     For a minute I could only gawk at the destruction.  The street was
torn up, every building for a block around the Inquisition's tower was
damaged, and smoke and screams filled the air.  I saw a small group of
Inquisition troops running full out through the chaos, and they didn't
even slow down to look at us.
     "What the freaking HELL?" I blurted.
     "Something went wrong," V breathed.
     "Oh, ya think?"  I scanned the immediate area, looking for our
people.  What could have gone so badly wrong?  Then my heart rate
spiked as I had a thought.
     The vampire.  Wynneth.  Could she have done this?
     "Look!" Mars shouted.  There, a woman in a senshi uniform.
We ran towards her, but immediately I realised there was something
wrong.  It wasn't Jupiter, her hair was too long, and her skin was dusky.
     Pluto?
     She was leaning on her staff and pulling someone out of a pile of
wreckage.  She got him halfway out before freezing, staring at his face in
shock.  No.  Not his face, I saw, but the emblem on his chest.  I didn't
recognise it, but I as we got closer I recognised him.
     Mamoru.
     "Easy," she said, pulling him up.  His armour was dented and his
face streaked with blood, and for a moment he didn't seem to know
where he was.  The I saw him snap into focus.  Fast and hard.
     "USAKO!"
     "Princess?" Mars gasped.  Uh-oh.  He pushed his way past Pluto,
and then there was a terrific boom from up the street.
     And I got my first look at our unforseen problem.
     Big.  Ugly.  And pretty damned powerful.  Saturn was falling
back, shielding the princess with her glaive.  She seemed to have put up
some kind of shield, and whatever that thing was, it hadn't managed to
break through.  Yet.
     Swirling balls of energy arced in from either side, slamming into
the thing full force.  Yeah, Uranus and Neptune were here, too, attacking
in perfect unison.  For all the good it did.  The hulk just shrugged off the
attacks, tearing into Saturn's defences with single minded ferocity.  It
hadn't broken through her shield, but it was pushing her steadily back.
     "What the ...?  No, wait!"  Pluto made a grab for Mamoru but he
was off and running straight for the thing.  Mars was hot on his heels,
changing back to her senshi uniform on the fly, and I quickly gave chase.
There were still scattered groups of Inquisitors, but whatever this thing
was it seemed to have done a hell of a job on them.  There were bodies
scattered everywhere, and efforts seemed to be concentrated on retrieving
the fallen and trying to form a defensive perimeter.  Not that they needed
to bother, from what I could see.  It seemed to be concentrating on Saturn
and the princess.
     Then Pluto joined the fray, unleashing a flurry of attacks on our
new friend, who in turn abandoned his attack on Saturn and turned his
full attention to this new threat.  Its gleaming black maw parted and a
beam of dazzling white energy lanced out at her, forcing the senshi to
dodge.  More magickal attacks rained down on the thing from every
direction.  Unable to get close, Mamoru changed direction and skirted the
beast, headed for the princess.  Good idea.  I didn't want to get fried by
our own people.
     At that moment a ball of greenish fire flew from out of the
shadows and hit Mars, spinning her around and tossing her across the
broken ground.  I slid to stop, spinning to face our new enemy.
     Or our old one.  Carlina, flanked by a dozen goons and two
women I took to be spellcasters.
     "You," she spat.  "You will pay for what you have done here.  I
will personally scour the flesh from one of your bones for every one of
my people who falls here tonight!"
     "Moron!" I shouted.  "We didn't call this thing!  I thought you
did!"
     "Take them!" Carlina shouted, her sharp features set in a familiar
expression of hatred.  "Dead or alive, take them all!"  Swell.  Talk about
lacking perspective.
     Well, I hadn't figured she'd be reasonable.  There were broken
chunks of pavement all around my feet, and before she could finish
shouting her order I blurred into action, kicking them high and rifling
them at the assembled Inquisitors with punches too fast to see.  They fell
back before the unexpected flurry, and I took advantage of that moment
to back flip across the ground and spin, running to scoop Mars from the
road.  The wind began to pick up, but at least Mars was safe.
     Well.  Relatively safe.  I was running from the Inquisitors, yes,
but unfortunately that meant I was running straight at Shiny Happy Kill-
guy.  And he chose that moment to turn and catch sight of me charging
across the street, magickal wind swirling around my body.
     There was one solution for both problems.  I gathered myself and
leapt high, putting all my strength into it.  Mars and I soared above the
fray, and wonder of wonders, the hulk didn't attack me.
     It was more interested in Carlina.  Letting loose with a howl that
shook the air and damned near made my ears bleed, it crouched, arms out
to the sides.  Then its chest seemed to burst open, spilling a pile of
smoking bones onto the roadway, and as I watched with horror black
tendrils erupted from the thing and streaked across the intervening space
towards Carlina.
     "VESTRA!"  One of the two spellcasters, her short dark hair
standing out against the white of her robes, threw herself into the tall
blonde woman, pushing her roughly aside.  The tendrils hit her instead,
wrapping around her body and limbs and reeling her in with dizzying
speed.
     Carlina screamed and the second spellcaster sent a lance of blue fire
towards the open chest, but the thing knocked the fiery projectile away as
if it were water, and a moment later the girl was being pulled into the
darkness of its chest.  She wailed in fear and pain, but as soon as those
heavy black chest plates slammed closed her cried were cut off
completely.
     It was done.  Just like that.  I hadn't even landed yet.  I came
down in front of a building that looked like an abandoned hotel in hell as
Carlina's screams ratcheted up a notch.  Her hair rippled and stood out
from her head as wind coiled around her body, and she soared forward
towards the thing that had just eaten one of her people.
     Its mouth gaped, a massive ball of greenish energy firing out and
hitting the Vestra head on, sending her rocketing back into her troops,
scattering them like matchsticks.
     "Crap," I whispered.  It ate people.  And gained their power.
What was this thing?
     "You two all right?" V panted, skidding to a stop beside us.
Peorth was still curled up in her arms, unconscious.
     "Whuh?" Mars mumbled.  "Hop'pen?"
     "Any idea what that is?" I asked grimly as it turned to fend off an
attack from an enraged Saturn.
          "It is called a Varragor," a voice said from above us.  I looked up
to see a woman flying down to us, long hair rippling dramatically in the
wind.  Even without the little black moon on her forehead, I'd have
known this was Dasma.  She and Usagi really did look alike.  I hadn't
known that she could fly, though.
     As she landed, I realised she was battered and bleeding.  I hadn't
known that goddesses could bleed, either.
     If this thing had done that to her, maybe we were in bigger
trouble than we knew.
     "Peorth," she said, surprising me.
     "You know her?" I asked.
     "Indeed.  We have a long history."  She reached out and put her
hand on Peorth's forehead, closing her eyes.  The girl's body began to
shimmer, and as I watched she vanished from V's arms.
     "Hey!  What happened?"
     "I sent her somewhere safe," Dasma informed me.  "This is no
place for someone in her condition."
     "Or any condition," V said.  I saw Saturn spin her glaive and
rush by the Varragor, opening a long cut in its side.  It spun, swinging at
her wildly and forcing her back, and by the time it turned again the
wound was gone.
     "Hell," I whispered.  "What can stop that thing?"
     "Nothing," Dasma replied, laying her hand on Mars' forehead
this time.  "At least, not for long."
     "That thing's a freaking monster," V muttered.  The Varragor
had forced Saturn back and now stood, bathed in magickal attacks, like
some unkillable devil.  It threw its head back and screamed at the sky,
but I didn't get the impression it was hurt.  On the contrary.  It lived for
just this, standing in the fires of war and bringing pain and death to all.
     This could have been a street in Nerima, and for a moment my
body went ice cold.
     "There has to be a way."  I didn't realise at first that I'd spoken
aloud.  "To kill it."
     "We never found one," Dasma replied as the thing's gaze
dropped, found us.  It started to move.  "We sealed them away, long
ago."
     "Then do it again!" V blurted.  The brute was gaining speed, and
we were right in its sights.
     "Split up," Dasma commanded.  "Don't attack it.  It will pursue
me.  Go!"
     She rose up, uncoiling her whip and sending bolts of black energy
flying at the creature as V and I ran.  Mars grabbed my arm but I didn't
want to slow to let her down.  We stayed far out of the thing's way, but
right now it had eyes only for Dasma, and it shrieked, spitting another of
those green energy balls at her.  The ball missed her by inches, punching
through the building behind her and rising into the sky.
     "Guys!"  Jupiter sprinted across the street, nimbly leaping over
craters and piles of rubble.  She was covered in dust and her uniform was
torn, but she didn't seem to be badly hurt.  Wet met up with her and
followed her lead, ending up in a parking lot half a block away.  Mercury
was there with the princess and Mamoru.  They all looked the worse for
wear, but luckily none seemed seriously injured.
     "Well, this sucks," Jupiter said with a half-grin as I finally set
Mars down.  "Are all our plans cursed or what?"
     "No shit," V agreed.  "Where did they dig THAT thing up?"
     "We have to stop it," the princess said softly, looking at each of
us as if to find the answer.  "We can't ... we can't just leave it to kill."
     "Yes, Princess, but how?" Mars asked.  "Dasma says even the
gods couldn't figure out a way to kill these things."
     "Saturn's glaive wounded it," I said.  "I saw.  But it healed in
seconds."
     "Bad," V muttered.
     "If it can be wounded, it can be killed," I said with a confidence I
didn't feel.  "There must be a way."
     Nobody said anything.  We'd been throwing everything we had at
it, but it hadn't even slowed down.  A hard-edged, tooth rattling shriek
rose into the night, and we turned to see the Varragor hurling great
chunks of stone and concrete into the air.  Dasma wove a pattern through
the lethal hail, dancing through the red-tinged sky.  Then she raised her
arms, and as we watched, a wave of dark energy began to coalesce
around her.  She cried out a challenge to the Varragor, spinning too fast
to see as she unleashed a tide of power that cascaded from the sky,
smashing into the Varragor and engulfing it totally.  The wave washed
up over the front of the nearest building, hammering it with unbelievable
force, tearing the entire front of the tower free.  The whole building began
to buckle and slide down into the street where it buried the enraged hulk.
Not stopping to admire her handiwork, Dasma turned and streaked
through the air towards us, landing gently moments later.
     "That won't hold it," she announced, breathing heavily.  "I had hoped
to find a way to distract it, but that is hopeless here.  It will wreak havoc
and kill without compunction while ..."
     "Why?" I asked.  She stopped, a flash of irritation on that face
that was so like Usagi's, yet not.
     "It was made to kill," she said curtly, as if that should be obvious.
     "No," I said.  "Why distract it?  Do you have a plan?"
     Everyone looked at me.  Maybe you weren't supposed to
question goddesses.  Well, screw that.  I'd seen one city fall to monsters,
and I'd be good and damned if I'd stand by and watch it happen again.
     "I can construct a portal," Dasma said, apparently deciding that it
would save time to simply answer me.  "But it would take me far too
long to align it with Tarrantosedus without help, perhaps as long as a
day.  We simply can't keep it busy that long."
     "Tarrant ... that's where you banished it?" Mars gaped.
     "All of them," Dasma told her.  "Now, you must ..."
     "Lady Dasma," Mercury interrupted.
     "Child, there is little time!"
     "I understand," Mercury told her.  "But I think I have an idea.
We need a gate that can be constructed quickly to someplace that will
hold the Varragor, yes?  Can you construct an aethyr portal?"
     "Useless," Dasma said dismissively.  "It tracked me to Aethyr, and
pursued me from there.  Not even that realm's unstable nature slowed its
progress.  No, I must leave here.  My blood is pure, it will pursue me ..."
     "The Grim," Mercury said, and Dasma froze.
     "What do you know of that?" she asked, eyes narrowed.
     "I think it could hold the Varragor," Mercury said quickly.
     "Anyone opening a portal to the Grim would be snared, child"
Dasma told her.
     "No.  I can do it, I'm sure I can.  If ..."
     An explosion rocked us as the Varragor finally hurled itself free
of the building that had fallen on top of it.  The Outers immediately
commenced attacking from all sides, but the brute simply shrugged off
the attacks again, hurling huge chunks of building at them and forcing
them to fall back.
     "How much time would you need?" I asked Mercury.
     "Whoa, tough guy," V said, grabbing my by the coat.  "Just hang
on, there!"
     "I don't know," Mercury grimaced, watching as the Varragor ran
full-on into Saturn's shield, throwing her all the way across the road as it
bellowed its rage.  "It would depend on how fast Dasma could make the
portal."
     "I am a goddess, Mercury," Dasma said.  "I assure you, that is
not the problem here."
     "Dark Lady," Mars broke in.  "If Mercury says she can do it, I
believe her.  Please, hear her out."
     "We have no time!"
     "An aethyr port," Mercury insisted.  "Over there.  A big one.  If
you can provide the power, I can control it, hold it open."
     "The Grim would reach through!"
     "I can keep that from happening!  Please, you must believe me!"
     Dasma hesitated, idly stroking her whip.  Apparently, this idea
had some merit.  "We would be immobile," she scowled.  "Vulnerable
while we worked ..."
     "What you need," I said, "is a distraction.  Someone to keep it
busy, then get it into the trap."
     "Young man, that thing is no mere beast," Dasma scowled as the
Varragor spun in place, then ended up facing us.  Even from this far
away I could feel its gaze on my skin.  It felt like rotting madness.  "Its
intelligence is often overshadowed by its rage, but it does possess a
fearsome cunning.  Even if we can create a portal directly to where we
require it, getting the Varragor into it will not be easy."
     "You let me worry about that," I said.  "I just need a way to get it to
chase me.  Can you do that?"
     "You ...what?"
     "Chase me!" I said.  Gentle tremors rumbled through the ground
as the Varragor began to run towards us.  "How do I get its attention?  It
attacked magick users back there, ate them ..."
     "It seeks the gods," she said grimly, looking from the distant Varragor
to me.  It was coming, coming fast.  "And by extension, all who carry our
blood."
     "Listen, I can do this, but not if it won't chase me!"
     She stared into my eyes for a moment, and whatever she saw
there pleased her.  Dasma reached out and drew one bloody finger across
my cheek, drawing something there.  The blood was hot and sticky on
my skin, but somehow not unpleasant.
     "Now hold on!" V blurted, her eyes wide as she realised I was not
going to back down..
     "Trust me, V.  I'll try to keep this thing's attention on me until you're
ready, then we'll get it into this portal of yours.  Mercury?"
     "I don't ... five minutes.  Maybe."
     "I can do that."
     "Ranma, this is crazy!"
     Yeah.  Yeah, it probably was.  But my head was already buzzing,
and I had a plan.  I'd have to improvise, but I knew I was fast enough to
pull this off.  I had to be.
     "You have the scent of my power on you," Dasma informed me,
and my skin tingled as she finished her little blood sketch.  "If I am not
too close, it will definitely pursue you, until you are dead, or I attempt to
flee this place.  It comes, brave one.  Are you ready?"
     "Believe it," I told her.  "Nobody draw it away from me, that's
important!  I'll hold it off as long as I can, signal me when you're ready!"
     "Ranma!" V cried.  "I'm going too!"
     "V, you can't!  You've gotta trust me!" I shouted.  I could feel the
thing bearing down on us like death itself.  Man, this was going to be
interesting.
     "There's no time!" Mamoru told us.  "Here it comes!"
     "Everybody scatter!"  I moved out into the street and faced down
the charging beast, making sure it could see me.  Those flaming eyes
fixed on me, and it howled, a deep, ear-shattering sound.
     Yeah.  I smelled like dinner now, didn't I?
     Go time.

***

     Falling back felt wrong, but whatever Dasma had done worked.
The Varragor went charging by where they'd been standing, fixated on
Ranma.  V watched with her heart clenched into a knot as Ranma led the
thing into a broad plaza down the block, in front of a large office tower.
     What was he thinking?  Was he going to unleash that chi-dragon
he'd used against Fenrir when not even Dasma's attacks seemed to hurt
the thing?  And even if that somehow proved effective, what would
happen when he lost control?
     "This is wrong!" V hissed.  "We should be doing something!"
     "We HAVE been doing something!" Jupiter whispered back,
gripping her shoulder.  "Lots of something, and nothing's worked!"
     "He's fighting that thing alone!"
     "He's not fighting it," Jupiter said in a low voice.  "He's just letting it
chase him around the plaza.  What the hells does he hope to
accomplish?"
     A chunk of the wall near where V was standing exploded, and she
threw herself to the ground, nearly rolling over Jupiter in the process.
Which, under ordinary circumstances, might have been entertaining.
These circumstances being what they were, she scrambled to her feet as
the prince and princess joined them at the edge of the building.
     The Outers were heading down the street towards them at full
speed, but they weren't alone.  Hot in pursuit were the remaining forces
of the White Order's Inquisition.
     "You've got to be KIDDING ME!" V snapped.  "Don't these
guys understand what's going on here?"
     "Can't we get them to fight the Varragor?" Jupiter asked.  "If
they're so intent on fighting, they could be our diversion."
     Jupiter!" the princess blurted.  "They wouldn't stand a chance!"
     "We have to hold them off while Dasma and the others make this
portal," Tux added.  "Or else this plan's going to be finished before it
starts.
     This they didn't need.  Neptune and Uranus reached their position
first, then turned and laid down a barrage of covering fire as first Pluto
and then Saturn joined them.
     "I just know," Saturn said darkly, shoulders heaving with exertion,
"that I'm going to love hearing the explanation for all this."
     "Thanks for coming, by the way," Tux said.
     "Thanks for inviting us," Uranus replied witha crooked grin.
     "Wait, why is Ranma all alone over there with that thing?" Pluto
asked, gesturing at Ranma.
     "Because he's an idiot!" V fumed.
     "There's a plan," Jupiter clarified.  "We've got to protect that circle
until Mercury and Dasma can get it powered up."
     "Then what?" Saturn asked, looking at them as if they were mad.
     "That," V spat, "is a good damned question."

***

     I danced out of range of the Varragor's strike, bits of rock
stinging my hands and face.  I should have been afraid, I suppose.  I'd
seen what this thing could do.  It had torn a swath through the Inquisitors,
waded through everything the senshi could throw at it, and even stood up
to a goddess without blinking.
     Yeah, I should have been afraid.  But I was just too damned
pissed.  People were bad enough, but these monsters, they didn't fight out
of fear or jealousy or a need to prove who was strongest.  It seemed that,
whenever they appeared, they fought and killed just for the sheer joy of
destroying lives.  I'd be damned if I'd let this ugly abomination run
amuck without doing anything about it.
     And I could do something about it.  If the girls did their part, I
was pretty sure I could deliver.  Because, during all the fighting, I'd
realised something interesting.
     This thing was putting out chi.
     It was hot and twisted, but it was definitely chi.  Maybe that was
the life force of a monster like this.  Or maybe, and wouldn't THIS be
poetic justice, maybe it was the chi of the poor Inquisitor it had eaten,
and of the person whose bones had spilled out, and all the others before
them.
     Poetic, because that one little fact had given me an idea.  The
pieces had fallen into place just like they did sometimes, so quick, so
right, so damned GOOD.  It must be like this to write music or paint or
sculpt things out of solid rock, to take a blank canvas and suddenly see
just what it could be.
     Screw techniques that depended on the key and sent me into a
state where I'd be as dangerous to my friends as this thing.  All I needed
to make this work was to keep my chi cold.  And that was not going to be
a problem.  Hot chi.  Cold chi.  And one hell of a big-ass spiral.
     The thing belched a green fireball at me, but I slipped away from
the explosion, staying just ahead of it, close enough that it didn't lose
interest, far enough that it couldn't score a hit.
     Just keep coming, asshole.  I've got a little surprise for you.

***

     Mars glanced back over her shoulder.  The Outers had joined the
rest of their group, and they had deployed to keep the Inquisition from
outflanking their position.  Once upon a time, she'd have abandoned
those damned Inquisitors to the Varragor, and to the hells with them.
Now?  Now she had to wait helplessly as they attacked her princess and
her friends.  Even if this worked, they'd still be facing down a hornet's
nest of pissed off Inquisitors who believed they were being attacked by
the Dark Lady's minions.
     This was one outcome she simply hadn't seen coming.
     "We have little time," Dasma was saying.  "Brave he may be, but
that boy will not be able to keep the Varragor occupied long.  Mercury, if
you intend to sacrifice yourself, I beg you to reconsider."
     "That's not my intention," the senshi assured her, surveying the
parking lot.  "Can you make me a portal that encompasses most of this
space?  Bigger will allow ..."  Mars watched in awe as lines of
glimmering force resolved out of nothingness, swirling across the
pavement and forming patterns with mind-bending speed.
     "Er.  Yes," Mercury said.  "I ... wow.  Okay.  I need a smaller,
secondary pattern right here, connected to the main matrix with a series
of three unidirectional glyph patterns.  They should incorporate a Greater
Warding linking the cardinal and sub-cardinal points, aligned with the
synchronisation flow."
     More lines appeared, patterns resolving, shifting at speed no
mortal mage could ever hope to match.  Dasma stared down at the circle,
making changes as Mercury dictated.  Hurry, Mars thought, stealing
another glimpse at the frantic action behind them.  Gods, we have to
hurry.
     "Incredible," Dasma breathed, regarding the finished product
with a rapt expression.  "This work, is it yours?"
     "Not originally," Mercury told her, stepping inside.
     "But even this will not be protection enough," Dasma went on.  "You
will need to link directly to the Grim.  Mercury ..."
     "It'll be some protection, though.  For a short time.  I once ported
into the deep wastes, you know," Mercury told her, not looking up.
"Deeper than anyone else."
     "Child, why?" Dasma breathed.  Mars said nothing.  She had a
feeling she knew why.  Inme.
     "That doesn't matter now," Mercury said, checking the circle.  "I
drew the Grim's regard, and barely escaped.  But I did escape, and I
learned enough about it in the process that I'm sure I can do this.  With
Mars' help."
     "Me?"  Mars was dumbfounded.  Mercury had asked her to help,
but she had no idea what she could do.  Mercury was the aethyr expert,
after all.
     "We need to call our synergy," Mercury told her, looking up
from where she knelt.  The girl was scared, Mars could see that.  But she
was also determined.  They needed this to work.
     "Synergy?"  Dasma looked from one girl to the other, and even
battered and streaked with blood she was radiantly beautiful.  "You have
mixed your abilities?"
     "My aethyr diving power with her Shadow Magick," Mercury
confirmed.
     "That was most ... unwise."  Dasma shook her head.  "Such a
mingling is dangerous to you both."
     "Well, then you'll love this next part," Mercury said with a tiny
smile.  "I'm going to use the synergistic reaction to make the portal
partially intangible, at least at the interface level.  The interaction
between our powers will make the portal wild, hard to control, but harder
to get a grip on.  The Varragor will still pass through, but that should
keep the Grim from latching onto the fabric of the portal and reaching
us."
     "Should?" Mars asked.  Mercury just shot her a smile.
     "Dasma, you need to feed enough power to Mars and me to run this
monster.  But you can't touch the circle yourself.  The Grim would be
able to use you as an anchor and drag us in."
     "Or come through," Dasma said quietly.
     "Yes."
     "You are the Wayfarer's blood all right, child," Dasma said, her
eyes alight with a fey glow.  "This plan is worthy of him.  He would have
loved you well.  There is no point in telling you how dangerous this is,
for I can see you are resolved.  Very well, daughters of Paal Lunae.
Take your positions!"
 
***

     I was bleeding from a dozen small cuts, but I didn't feel any pain.
The universe had gotten small, just me and big, black, and ugly.  I was
driving him into a frenzy.  The closer he came, the more I dodged every
attack by a hair, the angrier he got.  His fists tore up concrete but
couldn't connect.  When his hard-edged mouth opened, I sprang away
from the ever-shrinking balls of greenish energy, always keeping to the
spiral.  That took all my speed and skill, but I had both.  And I knew the
stakes.  I couldn't give up.
     And then his chest opened wide, tendrils shooting out at me as
smoking bones tumbled from that dark hell, wanting to drag me inside.
Joke was on him.  I'd already survived hell once.  The sight didn't freeze
me, didn't shock me.  I hurled two small balls of chi from my hands in
quick succession, and the chest plates closed quickly.
     Yeah.  Like I figured.  He was vulnerable when the chest was
open.  Maybe he couldn't be killed that way, but I was pretty sure he
could be hurt.  But risking someone's life in order to keep those plates
open for a mere chance of hurting this brute wasn't the plan.
     Speaking of the plan ...
     The spiral was growing tighter and tighter.  Soon I was going to
run out of space, and as our death-dance got closer his reach advantage
became more and more of a threat.  I slipped through the path I could
feel, loose-limbed and cold, oh so cold.  It had to be soon.  Otherwise I
was going to have to show my hand to the enemy, and that would be that.
The element of surprise would be gone.
     Come on, ladies.  Almost there.

***

     Mercury knelt in the supervisor's circle, Mars behind her.  Both
girls had removed their gloves, Mercury's hands flat on the edge of the
pattern, Mars' on top of hers.  That left Mars laying against her back, and
the sensual senshi's breath tickled Mercury's ear as she spoke softly.
     "Ami, this Grim.  The twins mentioned it that night.  The wastes
around it are a place of madness.  You ..."
     "Later, Rei," she breathed.  "Okay?  We don't have time now."
     "Okay.  Ami?  I won't let go of you."
     Mercury felt heat in her belly, and smiled.  "I know."
     Dasma stood outside the circle, and at Mercury's nod she let
Banri unspool.  The coils of the mysterious whip slithered across her
skin, surprisingly warm.
     "I'm going to initialise the portal and hold it open," Mercury
informed them, taking a deep breath.  "It will be difficult for you to stay
at the active border ..."
     "Worry about yourself, Lady Wayfarer," Dasma said with a
fierce smile.  "Banri and I have endured far worse than this."  Mercury
nodded.
     Her power stirred like a sleepy kitten, drawn by the proximity of
this wonderful portal that Dasma had constructed.  It was full of
flourishes and just plain artistry, and she hoped she remembered half of it
for her next portal.
     If there was a next portal.  "Okay," Mercury murmured.  "It's
time."
     Mars gave her hands a comforting squeeze, and began a low
chant that slithered sinuously into Mercury's ear.
     "By blood and by power, I summon thee ..."
     Mercury felt a stirring beneath her hands.
     "Bound by my will, answer to my command and lend me your
strength ... Azakaru!"
     The shadow came fast, and Mercury gasped at the silken
sensation as it flowed from Mars to her, wild and hungry.  In its wake a
surge of power, flowing from Dasma and through the whip to their joined
power, seeking a path of release.
     Mercury reached out.
     And activated the portal.

***

     You just know we're going to get blamed for this, V thought
blackly.  Okay, we raided their headquarters, but this Varragor thing?
Totally not us.  And, instead of helping us fight it, they fight us!
     "Life is not fair!" she gritted, firing a storm of golden hearts
towards the encroaching Inquisitors.  They had called up, of all things,
two armoured vehicles of some sort, and things were beginning to get
very hairy as the armour rumbled down the street and into the teeth of the
senshis' attacks..
     "This is only occurring to you now?" Saturn asked archly.  "I
suspect you haven't been paying attention."
     "How are they doing back there?" the princess asked, leaning
back to allow Mamoru to hurl a handful of roses toward the enemy.
"Ranma ..."
     Yeah.  Ranma.  His genius plan hadn't just been to lead the Varragor
into that wide-open plaza.  It had been, apparently, to lead the thing in
CIRCLES.  Circles that got smaller, tighter.  Soon he was going to run
out of room, and then ...
     V glanced back.  Mars and Mercury were kneeling together,
Dasma standing over them, and the circle ...
     She gaped.  It was lit up with a strange radiance, silver and black
lines snaking around each other as they limned every part of the huge
aethyr portal.  The one that Ami had made at her place didn't look
anything like this.  She wasn't sure if that was good or bad.  V dashed
back towards the glimmering pattern, throwing another glance toward the
embattled Ranma.
     "Hey!" she shouted.  "How's it coming over there?"  It was
Dasma who replied, not turning from the confluence of mystic energies.
     "Soon," she called.  "The way is opening.  It is ..."
     "We're running out of time!"
     "If we make a mistake, child, we will make things worse,"
Dasma replied, and although she didn't raise her voice there was
unmistakable menace there.  V didn't care.  She'd had enough of this.
She was going to get Ranma out of there.  Let the monster chase her for a
while.  Nobody did crazy plans like her, after all.
     The pattern seemed to ripple, and suddenly an almost unbearable
foulness washed over her in a horrible wave.  She actually staggered,
unable to say if it was a smell, a sound, or just a feeling.  One thing was
for sure.  The portal was open, and whatever was on the other side was
unbelievably awful.  But somewhere, deep underneath it all, there was
something, like a song.  Something that was almost alluring, as though if
she could only hear it more clearly ...
     "Now!" Dasma called out.  "Quickly, girl!  We cannot hold it
open for long!"
     That snapped her back to reality in a rush.  V turned and streaked
across the parking lot towards Ranma, abandoning all caution as her long
legs ate up the distance.  She trusted the others to cover her back.  She
had eyes for only one person at the moment.
     "RANMA!"

***

     Almost out of time.   One enormous fist grazed my hair as I
backed up, the wind of its passage loud in my ear.  The ground shook as
the Varragor advanced, more eager than ever as it sensed the end of our
dance.  My cheek burned where Dasma had marked me.  Distantly, the
sounds of fighting still raged.
     Its flaming eyes burned into mine, and that evil grin was all for me.
Gotcha now, it said.  Gotcha now, you stupid little pest.  Make me work?
Waste my time?  Don't think so.
     Closer.
     Ten more steps.
     Six more.
     Five.
     My name.  V, running, calling.
     Damn, I thought, catching a glimpse of her as I took the last few
steps.  I love a woman with good timing.
     The Varragor was on top of me.
     "Surprise, asshole," I said.
     And brought the whirlwind.

***

     Moon fell back from the eroded edge of the building.  Something
was happening with the portal, although she wasn't sure if that something
was good or bad.  Bad, to judge by the sudden wave of horror that
washed out from it.  It was hard to look at, and she felt a moment of
panic for Mars and Mercury, crouched at its edge.
     Then she spotted V, running hells bent for leather towards Ranma and
the Varragor.  Ranma's plan must have failed.  Damn it, none of this was
supposed to happen!  She shouldn't have let him go off like that, she
should have insisted they stay together!  This whole plan was supposed to
be neat and clean and fast, and nobody was supposed to get hurt, but now
everything was wrong, everything was bad, and she didn't know what
to do.
     Ranma.  V wouldn't reach him in time, and from here Moon
wouldn't reach either of them, and that awful thing would kill them both.
     Or worse.
     Oh, please, she prayed desperately, turning and starting to run.
Please, let me be in time.
     She didn't even come close.
     One moment, the Varragor was reaching for Ranma, its death's
head expression one of insane glee.
     The next, the wind came.
     No, that wasn't right.  She'd seen wind magicks at work before.
But this wind wasn't summoned.  It EXPLODED, seeming to form from
nothing, thrusting up into the sky in a swirling rage of elemental power.
     Carlina? she thought numbly.  One of the Crusaders?
     But no.  Alieva's forces were still trying to break through the
senshis' lines.  No, Ranma had done this.  Somehow.
     "What the hells?" Tux shouted from somewhere behind her, still
wearing his new armour.  "What happened?"
     She couldn't reply.  V had been much closer to the plaza, and her hat
had blown off, her long blonde hair streaming out as the violent funnel
lanced upwards into the crimson sky.  Moon gaped, catching sight of
something dark struggling inside of the wind's fury, caught by the
tempest.  Rising.
     The Varragor.
     "What did he do?" Jupiter asked, awestruck.  "Is that magick?"
     "No," Saturn said, peering intently into the rising tempest.  "Not
magick."
     Then what?  What had Ranma done?  Quickly, Moon realised
that she was asking the wrong question.  Not what had he done, but what
in the hells was he going to do next?

***

     Screaming with rage the Varragor rose, caught in my Hiryu
Shouten Ha.  Winds buffeted me as I stood there at the centre of the huge
whirlwind, arm thrust up in triumph.  Didn't see that coming, did you,
tough guy?  Not as easy as murdering those poor bastards, huh?
     Ranma Saotome takes a lot of killing.  Tell all your friends.
     But I wasn't done, not yet.  The tricky part was still to come.  I
eyed the wall of the vortex, judging my moment.
     Then I leaped.
     Caught in the rising wall of wind, I rode it up, my long coat
whipping around my body, braid snaking like something alive.  I was
close to the outer edge of the twister as I'd intended, quickly rising higher
and higher.  I didn't fight it.  I needed to go high, higher than the
Varragor.  Which, as I suspected, wasn't a problem.  It was a lot heavier
than I was, and I rode the edge of the wind up like an express elevator to
Crazyville.  I passed the howling monstrosity, enduring the battering
winds as the tower behind me came into view again and again like some
weird strobing image.  Not yet.  Not yet.  Not quite ...
     Now.
     Twisting, I rode the hard-edged wind to the perimeter of the
vortex.  If I'd judged wrong, the momentum would throw me in the
wrong direction, and I'd probably end up crippled by the fall.  Or dead.
     But the Ranma express doesn't make any stops in the lands of
Safety or Common Sense.  It was non-stop to Crazyville, baby.  I shot out
of the whirlwind, the swirling wind reluctantly letting me slip from its
grip, and then I was flying through the air high above the ground,
travelling like a bullet.
     I hadn't misjudged.
     I tucked my body and tumbled, twisting so that my legs were
behind me and I was facing the twister, howling with glee to match the
Varragor's shrieks as I drew in as much chi as I could, letting it pool
deep in my gut, building it higher and higher, wreathing myself in it.
     I hit the side of the building feet-first, knees bending to absorb as
much of the impact as possible.  I felt the stone crunch and give beneath
my feet as I hit, and pain lanced through my body but my flaring chi
protected me from the worst of it.
     And there I was, pinned by momentum against the stone wall of
the towering building nearly thirty stories up.  I could see the gleaming
circle down there, and the Varragor, rising in the twister.
     It is canny, she'd said.  It would never be lured into the circle.
Fine by me.  I wasn't much for luring.
     I was just going to send it there, whether it wanted to go or not.
     I only had seconds, so I'd have to make them count.  The
Varragor spun higher and higher, and the angle wasn't quite perfect, but I
was out of time.  It tumbled through the screaming winds, death's-head
maw gaping wide as it tried to get a bead on me.  My chi rumbled, coiled,
and built to a crescendo, straining for release, wanting to bring the hot
screaming fist of revenge down on Mister Varragor..
     Bang.
     I unleashed the bolt, hands thrust out with a cry, and it flew true,
punching through the wind and nailing the stinking beast squarely.  The
Varragor howled as it rode downwards on the head of a comet of searing
blue energy.  It had a parting gift for me, though, and as my feet started
to pull away from the wall it fired back, one last roiling ball of greenish
energy streaking up at me.
     Damn, I hate a sore loser.

***

     The princess watched, dumbfounded, as Ranma pulled the trigger
on his plan.  The Varragor was sent flying out of the twister, rocketing
towards them like a bullet.  For a moment she was frozen by shock, but
Saturn reacted instantly.
     "Neptune!  Uranus!"  The two senshi abandoned their posts and
moved back in a flash, leaping into the air, ready to use their power to
direct the plunging Varragor into the writhing, coruscating tangle of
silver and black energy that the pattern was quickly becoming.  A good
move, and one she should have though of.
     As it turned out, the precaution was unnecessary.  The shrieking
brute hit the pattern almost exactly in the middle, and the pattern bent
and rippled like something not quite solid, the impact sending waves
through its fabric.  Mars and Mercury both cried out, their bodies arcing
back, but Dasma stood firm.
     "Hold!" she commanded imperiously, every inch the goddess.
"A few seconds longer!"
     The Varragor thrashed in the pattern like a fly caught in a web,
the gleaming, twisted pattern spreading steadily over its shiny hide.
Whatever this was, it wasn't much like Ami's aethyr portal, at least to
Moon's eyes.
     It was sinking quickly, but she had a sudden sense, an intuition
of danger, and she levelled her sceptre just as the Varragor's chest flew
open and a storm of tendrils shot out towards Dasma and the two senshi.
It was going to try to drag them down with it.
     Moon didn't have to think.  Acting to protect her people was as
natural as breathing.  She unleashed the full force of her power in a
dazzling white stream, and while that hadn't stopped the Varragor
earlier, it certainly stopped those questing tendrils.  Her attack was joined
by Uranus and Neptune, and the tendrils were driven back away from the
trio at the edge of the circle.
     Then she felt it, a vertiginous wave of unfathomable horror, like
she had just taken a brief, ill-advised glance over the edge of the most
unspeakable precipice that had ever existed.  Dimly she was aware that
this was what existed on the other side of that portal, and that, whatever it
was, it knew she was there, that all of them were.  And that it would be
more than happy to invite them all in for an eternity of rancid madness.
     And then the moment passed, and the Varragor was gone.  The
circle rippled one last time, faded, then there was a deep, sharp crack and
it was gone.  Dasma caught the two senshi as they fell back, and Moon
was at their side in an instant.
     "Mercury!  Mars!  Are you all right?  Speak to me!"
     "They will be," Dasma breathed, gazing down at them with true
affection.  "Ah, daughter of my blood, you are all truly the children we
dreamed of so long ago.  What the world might have been had the White
Moon Court not fallen!"
     "Princess!" Mamoru called.  "What's our situation?  This lot is
calling up reinforcements, and there's an airship headed this way!"
     "Will it hold?" Mercury asked weakly, and Moon cradled the
limp girl in her arms, stroking sweat dampened hair back from her face.
     "What?" she asked gently.  "Will what hold?"
     "She means the Varragor," Dasma told her, holding out her hand
so that Banri could disengage herself from the two senshi and coil up her
mistress's arm.  "We shall know momentarily, child.  It will return
immediately if it is able.  If it does not, then our snare will hold."
     Long seconds dragged themselves painfully by, Moon's nerves
twitching at every sound or gust of wind.
     "Please tell me that it isn't coming back," Mars whispered.
     "It can tear its way through the barriers," Dasma informed them, her
eyes gleaming with fey light.  "But not quietly.  I would know if it was
coming.  Rejoice, Daughters of Paal Lunae.  Victory is ours!"
     Moon was about to cheer when her gaze fell upon the fading
whirlwind across the plaza, and she looked up to the last place she'd seen
Ranma.  The Varragor had sent one last shot away as it had fallen to its
doom, and she realised with a sick, sinking feeling that it had been
aiming at Ranma.
     Had it succeeded?  The place where Ranma had been perched so
precariously was now a huge, smoking hole in the side of the tower.
Wind tore the streamers of smoke to tatters, flinging shards of glass and
stone out to fall into the plaza with a dull clatter.
     Of Ranma there was no sign.
     "We should leave," Neptune said from behind her.  "I hear
sirens."
     "Of course," Dasma replied.  "I will ..."
     "Ranma," Moon said, finally shaking herself into action.  "Where
is he?  What happened to him?"
     The others followed her gaze.
     Silence descended on them.

***

     I'm not good at reading upside down.  I mean, why would I be?
Is anyone good at reading upside down?  Is that a skill anyone tries to
cultivate?  Why would anyone need to do it?
     For that matter, why was I doing it?
     Because my eyes were open, and I was staring at words, but they
were upside down.  I was pretty sure that was significant, but for the life
of me I couldn't say why.  Of course, I couldn't say why my mouth
tasted like old dust either, or why my bones were tuned into an old radio
station playing all enka tunes, all the time.
     Ah, the mysteries of our time.  But what the hell was ecnarusnI
eniwydnarB, anyway?  And why was I lying here?  Wasn't I supposed to
be doing something?  And what made that dinging sound?
     "Ranma!"
     High heels beat a staccato rhythm across the polished floor, and
suddenly ecnarusnI  eniwydnarB was replaced by V's face.  Even upside
down, it was knock down beautiful.  Of course, I was already knocked
down, so it had to settle for just being beautiful.  That seemed unfair
somehow.
     "Tough luck," I told her sympathetically.
     "What?  Are you all right?"
     "What's ecnarusnI  eniwydnarB?"
     "What are you babbling?  No, don't move!"  She leaned over me,
long luxuriant blonde hair spilling down over my body as she searched
me for visible injury.  I've had worse times.  She smelled great, even after
a fight against ...
     Oh, yeah.  The Varragor.
     "Hey, did I hit the target?"
     "The ...?  Oh, that.  Yes, you did, you GREAT BIG IDIOT!"
     "What?  Why is that ...?"
     "That thing nearly punched you through the building!  This is the
last suite before the other side, and even if it hadn't hit you, what were
you going to do for a finale, hanging thirty freaking floors above the
freaking GROUND?"
     I gave serious thought to her questions while she leaned over me,
breath coming in harsh pants, spots of bright pink colouring her high
cheekbones.  I thought of telling her that I'd hoped to twist as I fell,
snagging one of the narrow ledges that circled the building at every floor
and use my momentum to swing in, breaking the window with my feet
and throwing myself inside.  But that seemed like a lot of work.  So I
stared directly into stormy blue eyes and gave her the only reply I could
think of.
     "Yeah," I said sombrely.  "TOO quiet."
     She stared at me for a moment, then began giggling helplessly.
The giggles turned to outright laughter, and she finally collapsed on my
chest.  It wasn't really that funny, but the sudden release of tension was
worth a little unearned laughter.  And she was lying on my chest, her
breath tickling my chin as she laughed helplessly, and I couldn't think of
a good reason to tell her to stop.
     "You really are an idiot," she gasped at last.  "Gods, that was one
of the craziest damned things I have ever seen.  And this is ME we're
talking about.  I do crazy things the way other people change their
underwear!"
     "One leg at a time?"
     That set her off again.  I tried to think of something else clever to
say, but I only had so much clever in me, so I just lay there while she
laughed herself out again.
     "I think we won," she squeaked at last, reaching up to wipe away
tears.  "We really did.  We sent that bastard packing for parts unknown."
     "Yeah," I said.  "And we got Peorth.  We kind of rock, huh?"
     "Brandywine."
     "Huh?"
     "It doesn't say ecnarusnI  eniwydnarB.  The sign says
Brandywine Insurance."
     "Oh.  Well, I hope they've got plenty, because I made a bloody
big hole in their wall.  And floor."
     "Yeah," she said softly, laying her head on my chest and staring
out through the ragged gap in the far wall.  She was right, I'd gone
through a couple of other units on my way to this point, travelling
upward at an angle through walls and floors.  Down at the end of the hole
I could see sky.  If I hadn't managed to call up more chi just before the
ball of green energy hit me, I'd probably be in much worse shape.  Of
course, I was pretty sure that the Varragor had used up pretty much all of
the dark-haired girl it had eaten earlier.  That had been the last gasp of
her magick.  Lucky for me.
     "You know," V sighed softly, "you're moderately incorrigible."
     "Just moderately?"
     "You're other things, too.  And as much as I'd like to lay here
and list them, I think we'd better check on the others.  The Inquisition is
pissed, and they're not letting up."
     "Yeah," I sighed, unhappy at the prospect of moving.  "They probably
think we called the damned Varragor or something.  Why do our plans
always end up in such a shambles?"
     "Ah, there you are."
     I started as Dasma appeared in front of us.  A tiny smile graced
her lips as she gazed down at us, and she arched one elegant eyebrow.  "I
trust I'm not interrupting anything?"
     "Sadly, no," V told her with a crooked grin.
     "Good.  We must go.  There are matters we must speak of, while there
is still time.""
     And, with a wave of her hand, go we did.

***

     Wynneth rose from her bed, heavy silks falling away like night
given form.  The darkness was all around now, and it sang to her,
whispered in her ear.  And it told her such delicious things.
     She strode through the cloud of wraiths that encircled her bed,
passing through the antechambers to the main room.  Cyrie was there, of
course, and fell to her knees as her goddess entered.
     "Mistress.  Did you sleep well?"
     "Indeed I did, pet.  Guiding the energies of the spell was
somewhat enervating, but I have recovered fully.  And how is your sweet
daughter?"
     "Stubborn," Cyrie said with no small amount of satisfaction.  "It
delights me to be able to discipline her once again."
     Wynneth gazed down at the naked form chained to her throne.
Saekianna der Kae no longer looked the part of a high priestess.  She
knelt, trembling, on the cold stone floor, her head bowed by exhaustion.
It would be a simple matter to break the girl, of course.  One taste
of Wynneth's blood would melt all resistance.  But where would be the
fun in that?
     "You trouble your dear mother so," she said, reaching down to
trail her fingers through the captive's unbound hair.  "How cruel."
     "She is not my mother."  Saekianna's voice was raspy and weak,
but unlike her body, it did not tremble.  "My mother would have died
before she served you so."
     "Not to put too fine a point on it, my dear," Wynneth purred,
"she did just that.  But you are wrong.  I could have made her serve me
very easily.  Mine is the fount of all vampiric blood, ancient and
powerful.  No being can resist its power.  Just a taste would have been
enough."
     "Then why?" Saekianna asked through gritted teeth.  "Why have
you not crushed my will with this all-powerful blood?"
     Wynneth twined her fingers in the girl's dishevelled hair and
pulled Saekianna roughly to her feet.  The former Nightmistress did not
cry out.
     Wynneth was pleased.
     "Why, you ask?"  She pulled the girl against her, staring down
into dark eyes that still held traces of defiance, even after three days of
enduring Wynneth's ministrations.  "Silly girl.  I have lived a very long
time, longer than you can imagine.  I have learned to delay gratification,
to draw out that perfect moment when my prey finally succumbs."
     "I will not surrender to you," Saekianna whispered.  But
Wynneth could see the knowledge lurking in the girl's eyes.  She would
be broken, in the end.  They both knew it.  It was inevitable.
     "But mostly," Wynneth breathed, drawing the girl's face closer to
hers, "I want your thoughts free, so that you can contemplate the ruin
you led your precious Order to.  And when I bring those pretty, powerless
girls here, I want you to be able to appreciate fully as I make them into
my own handmaidens."
     "No," her captive moaned tightly, trembling becoming ever so
slightly more pronounced.
     "Or perhaps I will make them watch as you are turned,"
Wynneth mused.  "Yes, I think that would be appropriate.  Then I can
allow you to complete the destruction of your Order personally."
     "I won't."  Barely audible now, her eyes brimming with hatred
and fear.
     "Oh, you will," Wynneth purred.  "You will turn them all.  You
will not be dissuaded by their cries for mercy.  In fact, you ... will ...
ENJOY ... them."
     Saekianna screamed then.  Because she knew it was the truth.
     Wynneth had heard louder screams, but as far as heartfelt went,
this was one of the better ones she'd torn from anyone lately.  She opened
her fist, letting that long, luxuriant hair stream through her fingers as
Saekianna slowly folded, falling to her knees.  Her pale skin showed the
many bite marks exquisitely, and Wynneth smiled.  This girl had been
such a perfect pawn.  She was glad that Saekianna had survived the
ordeal of the past days.  Her destruction would be a work of art.
     Whirling in a storm of silks and shadows, her hair trailing her
like a cloak, she strode to the huge window and looked out into the night.
There they were, the lonely lights that the citizens of Saeni lit to hold the
darkness at bay.  They were so little, those lights, so fragile.
     So very fragile.
     "Have you looked?" she asked softly, not turning her gaze from
the panorama.  "Have you listened?  Have you unravelled the strands,
unearthed the secrets?"
     We have, the soft rustling of her wraith replied.
     "Excellent.  It is so noisy out there, so filled with activity.  I sense
so many things in my city, under my darkness.  I think my people are
frightened, aimless.  They need leadership.  They need someone to
worship.  And soon they will have the opportunity to serve me."
     She smiled then, a dead wind blowing her hair back as she stood
on the brink of the darkness.  Her wraith gathered around, showing her
what they had found, and her smile grew wider, wolfish.
     "Yes, the time is near.  Soon, I will have what I need.  Soon ..."
     (two are the lock)
     "Did you think bringing back the darkness was my ultimate goal,
fools?  You cannot begin to comprehend what is to come.  Already you
are in my web, and the strands draw more tightly around you with each
passing moment.  Already it is too late to escape."
     The ancient vampiress, first of her kind, threw her arms wide and
embraced the darkness she had ushered in.  Unlike the first time, this
darkness was meant to last.  The others had served her well fourteen
years ago, allowing her to create the perfect conditions to trigger the
darkness again here and now.
     "Two are the lock," she crooned.  "And one has the key.  And
soon the lock shall be opened."
     Somewhere, far in the distance, a clock struck midnight.
     And a bell began to toll.
 
 

End chapter 22