Neon Genesis Evangelion Fan Fiction / Ranma 1/2 Fan Fiction / Sailor Moon Fan Fiction ❯ Sailor Jupiter – Pilots in Attack ( Chapter 4 )

[ T - Teen: Not suitable for readers under 13 ]


I do not own any of the characters from Ranma 1 / 2, BSSM, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ah My Goddess, Tenchi Muyo or the Lovecraft Cycle involved in these stories. They belong to Rumiko Takahashi, Naoko Takeuchi, AIC Productions, Gainex, Kosuke Fujishima and Arkham House respectively.

C&C , MSTs are welcome


Sailor Jupiter II 4 – But Not For Voting

        They approached the torii that marked the gates to the temple proper.

        « You have to almost feel sorry for Burnside. At Knoxville, he does such a good job of fortifying that even Bedford Forrest doesn’t want to try it, so he gets no credit. He steals a march on Lee, then the pontoons get delayed. The Mud March of course. Then his masterpiece. When he’s finally learned that the troops fight better without generals trying to direct everything, he drills and drills three black regiments, who are on average better educated than the ordinary soldiers of other regiments. Call them special forces if you will. And Grant, who never micromanaged before, did so. The Crater becomes another Burnside failure. It’s like he couldn’t win no matter he did. He takes a hand, he doesn’t get credit, he makes sure others know what to do, and someone pulls his preprepared troops at the last minute. » Jeff sighed and shook his head.

        « What are you going on about? » Rei demanded.

        « We’re walking across a battlefield. The ghosts here are stirred up. »

        « Is that why it’s so cold? » Rei asked, rubbing her arms at the wind cutting through her clothing.

        « They’re watching, listening, measuring us, » he told her.

        « But they’re more afraid of us than we are of them? » Rei asked sarcastically, not believed that was possible.

        « Actually, they’re somewhat hostile to me, but you’re a priestess. They are probably thinking I’m your bodyguard, so they’ve let us in a lot deeper than they have others. » Jeff suddenly darted forward. A leather-colored blur that raised a walking stick to parry an ebon-black sword only a meter from her face.

        Rei stared in fear and shrank away from the blade that seemed to drink in the light around it, and the dozens of laughing demonic faces that seemed to be peering out of the metal, as if it were a window to somewhere else. The rest of the figure resolved itself into an ancient suit of armor. It’s more like a picture, a water color with streams of color running away from the painting. Even though it’s shaped like armor, Rei thought as she stepped back and Jeff pushed the figure back into the darkness around them, It’s all made up of laughing, fanged mouths. She whirled around at the sounds coming from behind and beside her. Other more human figures were seeming to step out of nowhere all around her. All of them grievously wounded, as if they had all died of their battle wounds. All of their parts accompanied them though. She stared at a man with his arm lopped off, he carried his severed arm and it shook the spear it still held.

        « Davis, wait! » she ordered as sharply as she could. I hope they took the crack in my voice as anger, not fear. « Interceding with the spirits is a priestess’s role. They aren’t malevolent, just very angry. » Like you told me, only now I’m feeling it too, she thought. She smiled at him as he stepped away from his fallen foe. Poor guy probably didn’t realize what he was tangling with, she thought as she approached the suit of armor, Davis taking up a position on her left rear flank, I can feel the aura of malevolence from him. It seems he can cast more subtle illusions than I thought. « If you don’t provoke him, he won’t hurt you, » she told the figure who had risen to his feet. Great, I’m telling an onryo or yurei something comforting, she thought and glanced back at Davis-san, Maybe I am, this ghost-monster is or was human. While Davis plays the part far better, I think he’s even less human than an onryo.

        « Perhaps they wish to air their grievances, » Jeff suggested, « You are the Shinto priestess, they may open their souls to you. »

        « Then why did they attack first? » Keiko called from further away. The doctor handed the captain back her coat when she’d finished brushing off the last bracken from her uniform blouse.

        Rei saw the slight bruises on the woman’s knuckles. « I suspect they did not expect a female warrior, » Rei called back, and noted the subtle change in the atmosphere around her. Yes, two officers of the modern Japanese military. So the priestess and her bodyguard serve the Emperor, even second-hand. They are growing hopeful. So they fear Davis, respect the three of us . . . what are they afraid of? Ghosts like these? An army of ghosts?

        The captain and the doctor stopped as if feeling a sudden chill.

        « The temperature drops another eleven degrees and the smell gets worse, » Davis told them, « It’s fine in here. Walk through smartly. You are a commander of companies and of regiments. Your father commands squadrons of warships, and they can smell it on you both. It’s just a challenge. »

        « What are they smelling? And feeling? » Rei whispered to Davis.

        « The battlefield, days after these men fell. Snow covered the fields, finishing what the war could not, » Davis replied quietly.

        I’m almost afraid to ask how he knows that, Rei thought, then turned back to the armor. « I shall find out, » Rei told them as she drew her harai gushi and approached the kneeling suit of armor. « What are you doing here? » she demanded, « Why do you trouble us? »

        « You desecrate our graves! Destroy our remains! And yet wonder why we are angry? » the mouths of the armor chanted. The demonic chittering voices of the sword making an odd counterpoint. The armor raised its blade.

        Davis cleared his throat and the mouths all took a worried expression, the demons in the blade gibbering with fear.

        « We have not done this! » Rei said firmly « Takes us to your desecrated graves, so all may be made right! » Rei commanded and shook her harai gushi to emphasize the point.

        The armor seemed indecisive, but lowered its blade and stepped back into the darkness that surrounded them.

        So it does as it would have done when it was alive. It bows and serves, Rei thought as the figures formed a ring around them. The murmuring of more voices than could be accounted for by the war-torn bodies surrounded them as well.

        Sounds more like the boys in class talking about this or that sport, or bikini idol, Rei thought with a frown, Not the grand pronouncements of mighty ghosts of ancient might. She listened closely as they walked along. Some murmur of hope, others despair. I will save or punish them. I am – « WHAT WAS THAT?! » Rei shouted angrily at the ring, watching the figures ripple like a pond in a gentle rain. « I am not that kind of girl! »

        « Eminence, » the doctor said smoothly, « It didn’t used to mean that. It used to mean a miko. It refers to the red of your trousers. Not what’s inside them. »

        « Oh. » Rei relaxed. « So you’re a historian too? »

        « Words and medicine, » he said, « Useful reading ancient medical texts and – » He paused, unwilling to continue, falling back to walk beside the captain.

        The armor bowed again and began a tale of woe: a brave fight to the death, centuries of benign neglect, and a sudden desecration not just of its remains, but all the dead soldiers of both sides.

        This must have all happened recently, Rei considered, Perhaps we can reinter the remains and soothe their spirits. Any ghosts that refuse to be put down, we can banish. I guess part of their anger is they are too weak to wreak vengeance on the ones who desecrated their bones. Something holds them back and weakens them if they get too close.

        You have to admire the ostentation, Commodore Takarada thought as he walked through the marble-floored crystal hallways, The rest of the scenery isn’t too bad either, he noted the prevalence of scantily-clad young women, all attractive, and most of whom seemed utterly fascinated by this older and obviously male newcomer.

        « I see what you mean, » Takarada told Langley-san, « There are no men here. It seems strange, almost a reverse of the typical B-monster movie genre. »

        « Also note the suspicious lack of children, » she pointed out, « If they are refugees, a lack of men I can understand, the refugees would carry their genetic and cultural legacy with them. The simplest way is the most obvious, but they don’t act as if they’ve had that experience. The men would have remained behind as a rearguard, but leave their offspring behind? It makes no sense . . . or it makes sense only one way. »

        There were no young to leave behind, the Commodore realized, Perhaps no males either, unless as she speculated, every one of the girls is already pregnant. No, they wouldn’t be so aggressive if their entire population were pregnant females. « They don’t increase by reproduction, but by assimilation, » the Commodore concluded. Either they’re sterile, misandrists, or reproduce asexually, which has all kinds of genetic problems in higher animals, he mused, Or they’re like bee or ant colonies: sterile drones and a fertile queen producing all the offspring. In which case, they should have already produced one father before she fled here. In which case he did the job and was left behind. Or they are immortal with no need for `replacements`, until their population drops. That leads back to assimilation, and the immortality program has the intentional or unintended side-effects we’ve seen in those three. All the more reason to rescue the citizens they captured earlier.

        They entered NeoSerenity’s throne room.

        « Ah, you return our captive to us, » the queen said, « You shall be rewarded. »

        « Miss Langley is my technical advisor, not your captive, your Majesty. » He bowed slightly. « And even if she were a prisoner of war, it is such a soldier’s duty to escape. Surely you aren’t claiming we’re at war, » he added as politely as he could.

        The GrandMaster’s scowl told all. NeoSerenity isn’t running things, he thought as he kept a benignly pleasant expression that hid all his inner feelings, She’s advised and guided on everything, by these others. The figurehead of the central committee. The chairman is the GrandMaster . . . but who is the king maker?

        « She attacked several of our soldiers, » the GrandMaster explained, « Such actions must be punished. »

        « If we are at peace, then the job of punishing my soldiers is mine, » he replied, « From interviews with witnesses, your soldiers attacked first, and in each case, were not harmed. Embarrassed perhaps, but uninjured. Are the others at the sites you secured also prisoners? Or something else? »

        Murmurs among the court told him he’d struck a nerve. He disciplined himself to look for the ebb and flow of orders and responses, to find the real source of power at court.

        And so the maneuvering begins, he thought, The Queen is guarded and guided. So which of you is holding the reins? Who is either over- or under-reacting? Miss Langley is correct that NeoSerenity is too guileless by half, her mouth the GrandMaster is too clever to be straightforward, so she’s not the decisive leader, she’s a schemer who lets others carry out her schemes, but must micromanage and isn’t worried about being hated for it. She’s not likely to have those safeguards in place. No someone else is the real power behind the over all schemes.

        « You have tortured our friends! » NeoSerenity insisted as her fist struck the arm of her crystal throne, « We have all felt their torment! »

        The GrandMaster is none too pleased by the addition of truth, he thought, And it does confirm Miss Langley’s theory. « I assure you, your Majesty, neither Kino Makoto, Tomoe Hotaru, nor Mizuno Ami have been harmed. Although they were disconcerted that there were other Senshi before them. Girls who shared their names, faces and planets, but did not survive the battle against Beryl in the Arctic, » he told the queen, further irritating the GrandMaster and sending shockwaves through the court where only ripples had disturbed their serenity before. Let them chatter and gossip and speculate, he thought, watching carefully without seeming to watch.

        « Discovering one is truly dead and gone . . . and there were loved ones left behind . . . that could never be easy for anyone. » And more concerns and discontent, he thought as the murmurs among the court increased a notch, They wonder how much of what was lost may be found again. « I apologize for my curiosity, but Earth was the one planetary body the Moon Kingdom had no claim to. Why haven’t you relocated to one of Jupiter’s orbital cities or the Moon Kingdom itself? » And again, a cat among the pigeons. How do these people get any work done if they stand around and gossip all the time? How does the Queen? he wondered as the court debated these possibilities, Ah, here it comes, salvation or condemnation.

        « We ruled Earth before, » GrandMaster Saturn replied.

        Crap! We’ve got a war on our hands. I wonder if the GrandMaster died . . . or would it take the Queen too? Would they become reasonable? « But you do not now, and not this Earth under any consideration, not legally, not by historic precedent. You are from outside. Do you hold your prisoners as hostages? Bargaining chips to force us to relinquish this land? »

        « The land is ours! » GrandMaster Saturn explained to a disrespectful child, « The people were a danger to us. We did not harm them, as you have claimed you have not harmed our kidnaped people. »

        « Do you propose an exchange? All your captives for our guests? »

        « We de – we request you return our people, as a sign of good faith, » the GrandMaster said condescendingly, « We will return yours when they are no longer a threat to us. »

        Round and round it goes, Takarada thought, Except I have commandos standing by and a number of other heavy assets. You’ve fired the first shot, and we shall fire the last.

        « Unless you brought some pet youma with you, » Asuka interjected, « We are about to have some uninvited guests. »

        « If this is some – » the GrandMaster began.

        « Protect her Highness! » Sailor Mars commanded. She and Venus took up positions near NeoSerenity. The other three full Senshi looked around, expecting trouble, and ready for it.

        Asuka pointed at one wall. « Main force . . .  » Asuka said as she concentrated, « There. »

        Commodore Takarada watched with disgust as everyone in the room, except himself and Asuka, oriented themselves in that direction.

        She said ‘Main force’, he mentally cursed, These people are only a threat because of their firepower. Their tactical acumen is laughable.

        The first clue was the blackening of the crystal wall, as if diamond was reverting to coal. The creatures that came through the wall looked like four lampreys joined by their tails and walking like four-legged spiders.

        As the only one in here who can’t knock down a mountain, shouldn’t I be the one screaming in fear? he wondered as he watched as a disorganized fusillade of varying energies hit the creatures, often canceling each other out, followed by frightened screams from the court as they saw their own ineffectiveness. Do I stand here or give a dangerous enemy tactical advice? he asked himself, then glanced at Asuka, I give my subordinates tactical advice. He moved to Asuka as the ranks of Senshi again fired uselessly and retreated screaming before the threat. « Quit acting like a Napoleonic infantryman or one of Rommel’s panzers, » he told her, « Modern tanks can fire on the move. Draw them out. »

        Asuka moved as she fired, clearing her field of fire so she could open up at full power. This time when she fired, she knocked several down with each shot.

        Neither the Queen nor the GrandMaster expected that either, he thought, You aren’t the be all and end all of firepower, are you? Maybe next time you’ll understand we were the ones negotiating from a position of strength.

        « Who taught these idiots how to shoot? » Asuka asked derisively, « George Lucas? » Both of them realized that the creatures had recognized the only real threat to them in the room, Asuka.

        « Take your time. Kill the first, then the next, and back towards the door. We aren’t running away. We’re drawing them off, » he told her as he carefully opened the door and made sure no other enemies waited outside. The walls still haven’t recovered, and the floor is as corrupted as the wall, he thought as he noted the blackened marks in the substance of the palace where the monsters touched it. He glanced around the room at the tactical disposition of the Senshi and their enemies. Of the original fifteen monsters, only six are still up and moving. And these Senshi still haven’t changed tactics. Come on Asuka, once we’re in the corridor, we can leave, he thought as the girl walked backwards, trusting her commander to protect her back while she drew the monsters after them.

        Once out in the empty corridor, the pair ran a short way to see where their enemy would go. When the enemy milled about undecided, Asuka released an intense fireball that incinerated the entire pack.

        « I didn’t do that –  »

        « Before so they wouldn’t know you could, » the Commodore finished, « Good thinking. You did show them you’re more powerful than they. Now we get out of here. »

        « There are a couple more out there. »

        « Near the truck? » he asked.

        « No. »

        « Not our problem, » he told her as they walked quickly out of the palace.

        « Their attacker sounds like the youma the Sailor Senshi fought, » Jeff said, oblivious to Hino-san’s frown, « They feed on spiritual energy. For these spirits, it’s as if the creatures are sucking the substance from them. If we hadn’t shown up, in a few months to a year, they would have been destroyed. »

        Is that good or bad? Keiko wanted to ask, but held her tongue, Isn’t that what we’d do any way? Banish ghosts? She glanced at the doctor who hadn’t let loose of his medallion during the entire walk. I still don’t know what that thing looks like, she thought, But the doctor has always been a little skittish about his past. My father knows and is content with what he knows. Maybe I should too.

        « Putting them back in the great cycle is far different from eating them, » Rei said angrily.

        « I think we have another problem, » the doctor said as the darkness around them vanished and collected around the half-dozen large drums that had been carelessly piled on a small hillock. « Dollars to donuts says their bones were ground up and poured in there. Technology could never separate them all. » He looked meaningfully at Davis and Hino-san.

        « Maxwell’s Demons don’t exist even in magic, » Davis said, « I can guess about the reaction of burying them all together. It will have to be carefully handled and will require more effort on my and Hino-san’s part. »

        « Wouldn’t a common burial be acceptable? » the doctor asked, « They are pitted against a common enemy now. Wouldn’t a communal grave make more sense? »

        Hino-san proposed it to the odd suit of armor, with Davis offering some additional points to sweeten the deal. The armor withdrew into the darkness and the entire cloud vanished into the trees. The natural darkness of night had closed in. It seemed like broad daylight by comparison.

        Davis walked over, with Hino-san following nervously. « They won’t agree, » Hino-san explained, « They assumed we could at least do something. You can never live up to your end of the deal. »

        « I’ve served as a psychopomp before, » Davis replied quietly, almost lost to his own thoughts, « It’s something else that’s been bothering me. » He looked at Keiko and the doctor. « When did the reports start coming in? About six weeks ago? »

        The flying jellyfish? Of course, that’s what he means. Keiko nodded. « You don’t believe in coincidences. They were disturbed about six weeks ago? »

        « Eight, but they were drained a few times in rapid succession early on. I suspect that the people doing it got their energy reserve, and once they had enough, they whistled up something, » Davis said quietly, « Our ghosts haven’t the faintest idea what, but they do know it wasn’t human. Different than I, or Miss Langley. »

        « So what else do we offer them? And what is a psychopomp anyway? » Hino-san asked.

        Keiko realized Davis was holding two different conversations. Like my father, some things aren’t for civilians, something are only for family, she thought, My father’s agent talks to us, while the two mages talk about what we don’t need to hear. And neither side seems eager to bridge the gap.

        « One who leads the dead to the next world, » Davis said disinterestedly, « That isn’t the problem, it’s convincing them to take the offer rather than remain here where they’ll menace the locals and serve as fuel to these – gentlemen and their machinations. »

        « They seem worried about what is going to happen, » Hino-san said, « Most don’t accept the Buddhist tenants, and I’m not sure I do either. »

        « We’d need to purify them first, » Davis said while lost in thought.

        My dad gets like that, Keiko thought, Put a plan together.

        « Sure, this temple is probably defiled beyond even my grandfather’s ability to restore. So why don’t we just establish a new temple? » Hino-san asked sarcastically.

        « That’s it, » Davis said quietly, « A temple requires a torii and a priest, or priestess, right? »

        « No, » Hino-san said firmly and shook her head, « There are all kinds of requirements and – »

        « Government requirements, not religious requirements, » Davis said with a manic grin, « All we need is a log, our pillars of Japan can be the pillars. Sanctifying the ground, a few square meters, we can handle that. Then they can come in and . . . confess, be blessed, you know that better than I. It’s perfect. »

        « You’re insane. I’d need a portable shrine or something. » Hino-san seemed to be grasping at straws.

        « Ah! » Davis’ grin intensified and he dug through his tweed coat. « Got it! » He placed a glowing bead in Hino-san’s hand. The glow brightened as it rested there.

        Hino-san sudden expression change as she stared at the softly-glowing, glassy sphere frightened Keiko.

        « Where did you get this? » the miko breathed, fearing to disturb the tranquility that seemed to radiate from the minuscule globe, as she cupped it in both hands and stared into it.

        « You’ll be happier not knowing. Will that work? »

        Hino-san looked at him with tears streaming down her cheeks. « Yes, yes of course! » she exclaimed quietly, « Of course it would. »

        « What is that? » Keiko whispered to Davis.

        « An angel’s tear, a tear of joy, » Davis said, « She gave her life to save the human race. And when her own kind turned against her, she found others willing to fight and if needed die alongside her. » The doctor stared aghast at Davis, then at Hino-san who stared at the sphere.

        « Do I want to know? » Keiko asked and accepted Davis’s head shake.

        « So are we going to purify these poor fellows, so we can take them to the land of the dead and help them along? » Davis asked eagerly.

        « The temple, yes, but travel there? Really, I mean actually? » Hino-san seemed uncertain of rather than opposed to the idea.

        « You deal with your miracles and rites, leave me to mine, » Davis said firmly, « It’ll give you an idea of what you’re getting yourself into. »

        Hino-san looked at the others, looking very young and childlike. « You aren’t just teasing me? Not making fun of me? »

        « On the contrary, I intend to escort those men to the land of the dead and you’ll come along to make certain we don’t get sidetracked, » Davis reiterated.

        « We’ll support your decision, » the doctor said. Keiko nodded her agreement.

        Hino-san blushed. Her only motion as she stared at Davis’s earnest expression.

        He has to be joking! Keiko thought, No one just strolls into the land of the dead, and especially not out of it!

        « Say, if this really was an army, they probably have an expert archer or two who doesn’t want to take part in the discourses. It will let them pay for your efforts on their behalf, » Davis suggested and dropped his hands, « Best trainer we can find. I can even summon up a bow for you. »

        « Are you insane!? » Hino-san exploded.

        « Oh course I am. I’m a Great Old One. Insane god is a prerequisite. »

        The pair had been quiet during the drive back to base. As they saw their escort vehicles approaching, they felt confident enough to speak.

        « Why didn’t they sabotage the truck? Or just shut off the engine? » the Commodore asked from behind the wheel, « They could have immobilized us completely. »

        Asuka, in the only other seat, glanced back at the four soldiers stoically riding in the bed. « I think they weren’t paying close attention. Or they didn’t think of it. Ami is their technical expert, and they really don’t have a grease-monkey type, as far as I know. Maybe these three unknowns know cars, but do they know the ins and outs of the science? »

        « I’ve no answer, » Takarada replied, he smiled, « I think this is the first time I’ve been able to slip away like that since I was promoted to captain. Being in a disgraced command has its advantages. You get ordered into harm’s way. Very rare that a general officer actually would. »

        « Yeah, we pilots never could fight minor actions, or stay around to help out, without direct orders. Sometimes it bugged me that I could make cinders out of the vast and deadly enemy, and yet poor guys with only a rifle were slugging it out with weaker enemies, and I had to stay away. »

        They come in groups, the doctor thought as the log rested across his and the captain’s head, Somehow I never thought I’d be wearing my Class A uniform to be a pillar. He glanced up at the immense log over their heads and wondered why it hadn’t crushed them both. He returned to more pleasant thoughts, looking at the glowing reflection of Heaven, and the pretty girl who was trying to look serious, and ended up looking resolute and cute. They accept that she is a priestess, he thought, But they also think she is more of a child than a woman. That much I can tell from their postures, and the ways soldiers would act towards a pretty girl, as opposed to a pretty woman. The Angel’s tear also proves she has Heaven’s favor, and some of its purity. A more real thing to these men that our less believing age, and a physical reality to them as spirits.

        He glanced at Davis, running around `reassembling` the spirits, before they stood before the priestess. Good theater, he thought, They are damaged before they go see her, and whole when they walk away. Gives them proof they are purified. I don’t know how he’s managing to do the repairs, but everyone who walks away whole gives strength to their belief that they are going to be all right.

        He also glanced at the small guard force that surrounded him and the captain. They don’t want the pillars of the torii molested either, he thought as he watched, Even if one is a pretty woman and a soldier.

        The armies had been small, scarcely a few hundred men comprised both sides. It would be well past night when the purification ritual was completed. The doctor smiled to the captain and waited.

        « I wonder what my father is doing? » the captain asked.

        « Fretting about your safety, and of the troops he sent into harm’s way, » Davis replied as he walked by with another partially-healed, wounded spirit.

        « How do you know that? » the daughter, Keiko, rather than the captain asked.

        « A firefly told me, » Davis said with a smirk.

        « There are times I wonder about him, » Keiko said.

        « Do you want to just wonder? » the doctor asked, « Or do you want to know? »

        Keiko considered, and frowned.

        Officers Imai and Tachibana looked at the two girls who were `escorting` them. I wish they weren’t necessary, Imai thought as she looked at the captives, who were still wearing their gags to keep them quiet, We don’t dare march them all the way back to the base. She looked around and listened intently. If those Senshi catch us, even antitank rockets won’t guarantee a kill, or even a stop, she thought as she checked out ‘Sailor Saturn’ who marched with the van, then back at Asuka who was the rearguard for all intents and purposes. At least they know enough not to make any noise. Tachibana held up his fist, and the soldiers brought the civilians to a halt and had them kneel. Imai glanced back at Asuka, who also had her fist raised.

        Imai felt sweat crawl down her spine. Senshi? Something else? the soldier searched for any clue, then glanced to her commander, Tachibana, who was just as concerned, and just as ignorant of what Asuka had sensed. Then Asuka waved them forward and stood up straight, but didn’t follow the hostages. Imai let the frightened civilians move past her as she slipped back towards Asuka. She froze and snapped her weapon up as a sword flashed out of the darkness. A polearm of fire caught the sword. Asuka seemed to be a statue for all the effort she was using, while her taller opponent was straining every sinew.

        Asuka thrust her opponent back. A simple shove that sent her opponent flying, then Asuka swung wide behind her. Imai jumped as a baroque staff sailed through the air to ring on the floor, a tall woman fell from the same point the staff had appeared, and Asuka’s hateful glare scythed over her foes.

        She doesn’t need my interference, Imai thought as she began walking backward while looking for any other threats. « Asuka! » Imai pointed at the red-trimmed Senshi in the high-heels.

        « Mars Power Inferno! » the woman shouted and Imai threw herself flat as dozens of small fireballs exploded from the Senshi’s fingertips.

        Asuka seemed to stand stock-still, until her arm and polearm blurred into invisibility. Some of the fireballs exploded, others passed by, and Asuka again stood unmoving.

        She just got the ones that would hit the hostages, or me, Imai thought as she continued her withdrawal. She considered the fires smoldering around the Senshi who was struggling to regain her feet and her staff.

        The sword-Senshi charged, and had her swipe contemptuously parried. Asuka didn’t seem to move, her polearm simply appeared in a position that effortlessly prevented the sword from continuing, her arms and stance flowing into the new position instantly. The Senshi behind the sword strained, while Asuka showed no indication she was doing more than standing motionless and holding her polearm. The staff-wielder picked up her weapon and leapt at Asuka, whose upper body blurred out of sight as she ducked under the swing. Then she was behind the staff-wielder and shoved the woman straight at the sword-wielder. The two went down in a tangle. Asuka took a step or two back to get out of the way. While her two opponents leap and spin like those Hong Kong Kung Fu movies, she doesn’t even appear to move, but her stance just appears and she doesn’t show any effort, she thought as she left Asuka behind to her victims.

        « You would challenge me? Use Time and Fire against what I have become? » Asuka’s voice had all the frigid fury of the Antarctic blizzard.

        Imai turned and ran, ignoring the screams of surprise, pain and rage behind her. In front of her was an equally horrifying sight. A pack of those minor Senshi, she realized as she raised her weapon, then lowered it, They aren’t attacking. They’re cowering. She rushed through the vaulted arch, and saw a few wounded soldiers, but more unconscious minor Senshi, and Sailor Saturn standing quiet and composed with her blade at the ready. Kuno Tatewaki stood, leaning against one wall with a proprietary air. Second Rikusa Tachibana stared in fear at the young girl who had obviously been the only force which had prevailed against the Senshi. Although Kuno had been prepared to take the field, Imai realized, Although I doubt he did, content to herd the `noncombatants` to safety. And that includes armed and trained soldiers of the Japanese military.

        « We should go, » Kuno said, breaking the silence.

        Wait a second! I should have heard such a fight! Imai wanted to protest, No, if her powers include silence, I wouldn’t have heard anything.

        « I think my dad is probably going a little nuts right now, » the girl said, a faint smile gave her an almost impish look.

        « Then let’s get out of here, » Asuka said, nearly scaring Imai out of her life.

        « How’d you get behind me? » the officer stammered, « I would have heard. »

        « Would you have? » Asuka asked, not in her usual tone.

        She almost sounds . . . sad, Imai thought as they stepped through the portal, into the field. Several pieces of artillery and numerous heavy machineguns aimed at them.

        « I thought you’d gone back to Tokyo, » Imai said as Sailor Saturn returned to just Tomoe Hotaru.

        « Some bad people attacked my and Ami-chan’s family. The Commodore told us to come back here, » she said, then leaned close to Imai, « I think he wanted a few extra doctors and nurses for this rescue. »

        « Were any of the civilians hurt? » Imai asked.

        Tachibana shook his head. « A few cuts and scratches. The soldiers held the line until they all escaped. » He looked up at Imai. « They took quite a beating. It’s as if they knew where we were going. »

        « They probably did. That portal is anything but subtle, » Asuka said, as she marched leadenly towards the temporary aid station.

        « What got into her? » Tachibana asked.

        « She fought three of the senior group, all by herself, » Imai said, « I think she was having a pretty easy time of it. »

        « Why would that make her so sad? » Hotaru asked as she stared at Asuka.

        I have a few theories, Imai didn’t say aloud.

        Makoto looked at the soldier, nodded and lifted at the signal. Doctors Mizuno and Tomoe were checking the wounded. Makoto felt sick at the wounded people and that it was these distorted Senshi who had done it. I guess I’m not the only one, she thought as she looked where Ami was trying to do her best, yet her expression of horror mirrored what Makoto felt.

        I don’t care what they said, Makoto thought as she moved onto the next patient, We’d never do this. We wouldn’t take captives, we wouldn’t fight to keep them, and we wouldn’t sneak in. I guess I’m naive enough to believe that if it were us, we would have made friends, and made a deal.

        « Don’t assume that those women are what you’ll become, » Commodore Takarada told her, then moved on to a soldier, shaking his hand and telling him something encouraging.

        Thanks, I needed that, Makoto thought, I think Ami needs to hear the same.

        Slimy, oily, Rei thought of the figure who approached them. The two archery instructors had both vanished before the man had been able to see them. He reminds me of a greased snake, she thought and suppressed both a shiver and the urge to put and arrow in his heart.

        « So, you’ve stuck your nose in where it doesn’t belong, » the man said and his street gang henchmen chuckled.

        « Can be cut’em up boss? » The tough pulled a switchblade and tossed it from hand to hand. He paled as Keiko smiled at him and waved.

         » ‘Can be cut’em up boss?’, » the doctor sneered at the boy, « What do you do? Assemble them out of roadkill and give them a zap to bring them back? Try using some better cuts of meat next time. What are you, a cheapskate Frankenstein? Don’t forget, his creation turned on him – »

        « Shut up funny man, » the serpentine man growled, « Maybe the pack of ghosts will tickle your funny bone, after they rip it out of your body. »

        « I’d advise you to reconsider the idea, » Jeff said idly, « The anomaly of this place works both ways. »

        « So, my fool sire sends one of his precious knights to protect the poor lady, » the oily man said, « Oh, I’m all sparkly. »

        « You certainly are, » Jeff replied coldly, staring at the man.

        Despite the almost-friendly tone, Rei thought, He’s ready to kill that guy, and I don’t blame him. There’s something just wrong with him. I think my best move is to not draw attention to myself.

        « If you know I’m a knight, and that’s all, then you aren’t as perceptive as I thought, » Jeff said, almost playfully.

        The serpentine man’s eyes narrowed.

        Rei gasped as she stared. His pupils didn’t open like a human’s, they widened side-to-side, like a cat’s . . . or a snake’s! she realized.

        « It’s impossible! » the man said without his former confidence, « Kill them. »

        The six toughs drew submachineguns.

        Jeff set his hat on Rei’s head, and waited.

        The toughs opened up and sent the ricocheting bullets back into the shooters’ comrades. Even the snakelike man took several hits before he could bark, « Stop shooting! You idiots! »

        The thugs had fallen, and were writhing on the ground, if they were moving at all.

        « Your little trick of sucking the life from your victims, » Jeff said as he returned his hat to his head, « It doesn’t work anymore. »

        « You think I’m afraid of these half-men? They are nothing! » the man said as he staggered. Behind him, the darkness formed.

        « I think they’ll beg to differ, » Jeff said as the darkness swept over the thugs and their master. « Don’t look. » Jeff turned Rei away. « Solders were not so gentle and civilized a few hundred years ago. »

        Rei covered her eyes and tried to ignore the gurgles and cries.

        Rei breathed the smoke, and felt her eyes watering, but the monotonous drone and the occasional sound of a screwdriver striking a pipe had her nodding. I don’t think I’m going to stay awake, she thought as she caught herself nodding off.

        She jerked awake and looked around at the odd almost cloudlike terrain around them. Then she looked at Jeff as he stood and addressed a dozen of the oddest `people` she’d ever seen. A walking snake, a lump of crystal, a street urchin out of Dickens, an Italian officer, others, Rei thought.

        « Okay, you know the way around. You’ll be helping us ride herd on these men. Make sure none of them get separated or straggle, if you run into a problem you can’t handle, call Miss Hino or myself, everybody got it? » He waited for affirmatives, then continued, « Any questions? »

        « We don’t have to go in guvner? Do we? » the urchin asked.

        He’s too pretty to be a boy, Rei thought, Why wouldn’t he – she want to get back in the cycle of reincarnation, or the road to Heaven?

        « No, you won’t » Jeff assured them all, « Any time you’re ready to take that step, I’ll take you myself. »

        The group seemed satisfied with that and dispersed to the rear and flanks.

        The clouds, they are the army! she realized. She looked at the wispy forms and wondered, Is there enough of them to say on the path?

        Jeff approached her. « Now might be a good time to complete your archery lessons. It’s going to be quite boring for some time. »

        « Aren’t we in danger? Leaving our bodies for so long? » Rei asked.

        « No, time is dependant on the strength of your mind. A strong mind makes apparent time pass faster here than in the waking world. We’ll probably only be gone from there for an hour or two. »

        « So what are you going to be doing? »

        « Pulling all these folks along. That’s the reason for all the ‘lost souls’, they can’t navigate in this, but a shaman is expected to be a psychopomp, one who guides the dead to their rest. So you learn to navigate the eddies and currents, but right now I’ve got a lot of inertia to overcome, so I have to build up the momentum to get them moving. »

        « Why didn’t we all just walk along? »

        « Because here, thought shapes reality, they don’t know where they are going. So they’ll never find anywhere. You’re thinking there’s a road or path, there is, but once you’re lost off it, you might never find it again. It’s not like finding a needle in a haystack, it’s like finding a particular needle in a needle factory. »

        Rei nodded, and glanced back at the group of men who had volunteered to teach her archery. I’m glad we – I purified them for the journey, a collection of hacked up warriors would have been too hard to deal with, she thought as they greeted her respectfully. Their yumi bows in hand, and their pride in their skill evident.

        Rei had mastered the basics easily, and had achieved good accuracy at moderate ranges. She bowed to her teachers. « Thank you, but I fear my arms will need rest before we continue, » she explained and bowed again. They handed her a bow.

        « We will wait, » they assured her.

        She glanced around the camp, and the people milling about within it. Further out, Davis-san’s odd pickets kept watch, moving to intercept anyone who strayed too far.

        And in front, the man himself, she thought as she approached, The steady stride of someone intending to get there. She watched him closely, then wondered, Why is he walking, without moving? « What are you doing? »

        « Moving everyone. Like a locomotive, or the engine of a ship. I move the mass, or frame of reference, you all move within it. »

        « Why the subtle changes in direction? »

        « The path is not straight. It bends and weaves. There are traps and snares set for the unwary. Come up here with me, I’ll teach you how to navigate. Fix your mind on your goal. »

        « The palace of Yomi, where awaits he who judges. »

        « Okay, now keep that firmly in mind. As paths come towards you, some will feel right, some will feel wrong, and some will feel almost right, those are the most dangerous, because they are almost always a trap. »

        « Won’t I get us lost? » Rei asked in horror.

        « I’m not letting you steer! I’m just letting you point out the road. Do you want to be like Sailor Mars, impulsively jumping to the attack when there is a better course? »

        « No! » she said seriously.

        « Then learn, » he chided her.

        She fixed her mind on the palace in Yomi. The Judgement Hall of the Dead. She pointed to the way that seemed the best way.

        « That’s the way back to Earth, » Davis-san said dryly, « We aren’t going to stay there, we aren’t even going to pick up a receipt. We’re going to drop them off and leave, maybe after exchanging a few pleasantries. »

        « Pleasantries? » Rei almost choked.

        « Certainly, you’re going to be traipsing around, better to know the major players. ‘Hi this is Hino Rei, she works for -‘ who do you? Never mind. ‘She works for another firm, but she’ll be catching the occasional spirit and sending them back here. She’ll need a Security Clearance, I.D. badge and an exit pass. And if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, a guidebook and one of those T-shirts that says ‘I visited the Yomi Realm and all I got was this T-shirt, thank God.' »

        Rei snickered at that. « It can’t be like that. »

        « These places are conceptual, the words change, the concepts remain the same, you and I won’t see the same structure, that’s why the paths are so important. Talk to the others, I doubt they’ll see the high plains grasslands were walking through. »

        « You’re teasing me again. » Rei looked around at the clouds all around them.

        « Nope. » He pointed up at the bright blue sky. « Grass up to your hips. No sun or clouds, but it’s daylight. »

        « I don’t see that, » Rei admitted.

        « Like I said, it’s conceptual. I see the paths trodden down in the grass, but I’ve been at this longer. Some people see clouds, some see the sea, others familiar buildings with their endless corridors and doors. It’s a concept, the manifestation isn’t real. »

        « Oh, » Rei said feeling very small and insecure in her skills.

        « It’s a larger world, get used to it. Too many priests of all faiths bury themselves in the minutia and laws, and forget faith and wonder, we’re talking about beings of incomprehensible good and mind-shattering evil. Creatures who could bestride the stars and lay down the law to vast empires, or crush them underfoot. The power and scale of their works is almost unimaginable. The youma, even Queen Beryl that the Senshi fought and died to defeat are the merest flickers in a picture so vast you’d go mad if you understood even the briefest thumbnail sketch. »

        « But you understand it, at least a little. »

        « Think about what I just said, and the fact I understand far more than a brief thumbnail sketch. »

        Rei gulped at that implication and went on pointing out the path through the clouds she felt, and tried not to be embarrassed or angry when he pointed out her errors. I’m learning, she reminded herself, I don’t like what I’m learning, but I am learning.

        Makoto found Asuka, she didn’t feel afraid of the girl as the other `normal humans` did. I guess finding out I was a Senshi, then the fight this afternoon, Makoto thought as she approached. « ASUKA! » she shouted and rushed towards her as she saw the thick needle that Asuka had driven through her own hand.

        « Sorry, » Asuka said as she pulled the huge sliver of steel from her hand, « I didn’t think anybody would follow me. » Asuka gave her a smile that seemed to brighten the whole room.

        But Makoto was immune. « What are you doing? » Makoto demanded as she prepared to rip a strip from her sleeve as a bandage, then realized there was no blood. Nothing! Not on the needle, the table nor on her hand. She saw Asuka’s smile fade as if its batteries had run down.

        « It doesn’t even hurt, unless I remember it should, » Asuka said, « Big advantage in a fight. Not that I really need one. »

        Makoto knelt beside the girl, clasping Asuka’s hands between hers. « What’s wrong? »

        « Since I’m a weapon, nothing. I should be happy. »

        « What if you aren’t? » Makoto asked, Asuka kept looking away from her.

        « I fought all three of those Senshi by myself. It was easy. That idiot with the sword, I could teach you enough in a week you could beat her easily. Hell, I taught Hotaru enough in an afternoon! » Asuka pulled her hands free and stood up. « That idiot who thought she could use time to disguise her presence. She would have done better with a neon-yellow ninja suit, and squeaking clown shoes! »

        Makoto hid her grin at the image, concentrating on Asuka, who was concentrating on the lantern and the gnats circling into and out of the light.

        « Then that pathetic wannabe tried to use fire. What did she fire off? Fifty-six marble-sized fireballs. Impact-fused, straight-runners all of them. Even in the ’40’s our torpedoes had prox. fuses and acoustic homing, without magic or integrated circuits. » Asuka sighed. « It made me mad. So I – fired – back. »

        « How many? » Makoto asked warily.

        « Ever seen those Mecha shows where you have to wonder where they stored all those missiles? »

        « That many? » Makoto asked, remembering the typical ‘Macross Missile Massacre’ those shows prided themselves in.

        « More, » Asuka admitted sadly, « I didn’t hit them all at once, had to drive them together and show them how futile their resistance was. I could have just told them that to start with. »

        « You didn’t . . . ah . . .  »

        « Kill them? No. I didn’t even hurt them seriously, except their pride, which I ripped up one side and down the other. It was too easy to hurt them, too easy to just beat them, too easy to just humiliate them, I, I wanted a challenge. When I should have been concentrating on just getting those people out safely. »

        « You’re assuming that anything other than what you did could have stopped them, » Makoto said.

        « You really don’t understand, » Asuka said sadly as she turned to face Makoto, « When you and the others died. »

        Asuka frowned. « I mean, when you and the others happily marched off and let yourselves all get slaughtered like sheep alongside your princess! » Asuka said harshly, Makoto backed away, « I’d already decided to leave Nerima. It stopped being a challenge. It stopped being fun. All those people who refused to accept that maybe their `love` wasn’t returned or their goal could never be achieved, and were willing to do any despicable, stupid, selfish thing to force the object of their affection to notice them or to gain one more example to be ignored that they could never have what they wanted. Ignoring reality or what help might have been had by asking. They were killing themselves and each other that same way the Senshi did. Slowly, but just as surely. »

        I can’t imagine throwing my life away, except to save my family, Makoto thought, But that wouldn’t really be throwing it away.

        « Then I encountered these, parasites, » Asuka said, « And even after I’d separated the symbiotes from the true parasites, I couldn’t simply excise them and be done with it. I kept looking for a challenge. »

        « Asuka, » Makoto said carefully, « You can’t blame yourself for not wanting to slaughter indiscriminately. »

        « Why not! It works! The British, Americans and Russians blasted anything that moved on the Continent for nearly two entire years, and the Germans, French, Italians, Czechs and Austrians learned enough to avoid the next two continental wars. The Pax Britannica and the Pax M.A.D. worked because even idiots understand ‘You step out of line, you’re all gone!’ Why not simply obliterate that tower, blow down the walls and stomp on the bodies trapped by the upheaval? Then do that to the next `villain`, remove the noncombatants and annihilate all the rest? If they come with open hands and hearts, welcome and care for them. If they come with a dagger in the night, leave them not even the scorched earth to dig their grave in! »

        « It’s uncivilized, » Makoto insisted in horror.

        Asuka’s harsh expression softened. Her sneer at Makoto’s statement changed to a smile. « That’s right. It is. I’d forgotten, that being civilized is more important than your family living through those women’s next attack. So tell me how you managed to tear up your hands, by being oh so civilized? Or are you too civilized to remember what wanting to finish beating someone to death with your bare hands felt like? You tell me slitting those three throats wouldn’t have solved that entire problem, and I’ll call you a liar and back it up. »

        Makoto shivered in revulsion at the connection that Asuka had made. She despises herself for not being able to do what I tried to hard to do, kill another person. « I can’t answer that, » Makoto admitted as she turned away.

        « I can, » Asuka said softly, as she put her arms around Makoto’s shoulders, « You don’t let the blood show. Slay without taking the life. » Asuka turned her around. « Now, you will tell me all you know about these women, and I will tell you if you’re lying or not. »

        Makoto wanted to back away, but Asuka’s expression terrified her.

Sailor Jupiter II 5 – You Don’t Believe In War

        Setsuna ignored the banter and teasing going on behind her as she approached their home, after leaving the hospital. Children! she thought disdainfully. She couldn’t say it, as her jaw was still wired shut. That trivial piece of . . . Her thought vanished as she recognized the time gates, sitting in the middle of their living room. They shouldn’t be able to fit in here! Let alone travel here! she thought desperately.

        « What’s wrong? » Haruka demanded as she pushed past the taller woman, then froze as Setsuna had. « Bringing your work home with you now? » she asked as Michiru joined them.

        The door closing and locking of its own accord, told them they were in trouble. The trio of figures who stepped from behind the Gates confirmed it for Pluto. « Pluto Planet Power – Make up! » Pluto called, yet remained Meioh Setsuna. Haruka and Michiru likewise attempted to transform, and failed, and she was stung by the incongruity. If my jaw is wired shut, how do I hear myself speaking? Unless this is all a dream or an illusion.

        « Lady Tsunami. Or should I call you ‘Pretty Sammi’? » Setsuna asked regally, in a tone that always disconcerted others. The trio was immune to such tricks.

        But the first speaker was the blue-eyed redhead who’d dragged them through the snow, after their disastrous confrontation with their dopplegangers. « They’ve seen Triton. What used to be there. I walked the shattered dreams hanging in Jupiter’s high clouds, and wept at the slain dreamers. I walked the glory gone to lunar dust, and I was sad it had fallen. I walked the tunnels and holding pens of Triton, and realized Beryl only overreacted slightly. She should have concentrated on you three, and destroyed Serenity by revealing it all to the galaxy as a whole. »

        Setsuna felt a little sting of fear, but thrust it asside. Haruka and Michiru haven’t the faintest idea, Setsuna thought. « Been chasing the dragon, and – ? »

        The girl simply touched the Gates of Time, and they crumbled to dust. Setsuna gasped as she felt her link to the Gates shatter as thoroughly as the Gates themselves just had.

        « I could have had my ally stake you each down to a stone table, on a lonely tropical island, and carve your living heart from your chest as an offering to the eldritch gods. ‘Sacrifices have to be made’, you know. Or perhaps he could have shattered every bone in your body, one by one, each of you, over and over, until you told us all you knew about it. But I’d rather see the truth myself. Besides, you’d whine and cry until he took mercy and killed you, before you told us all of the secrets hidden there. I want you to live with the knowledge that someone knows the real secret of what fueled the Silver Millennium, and its fall. We all assumed it was Serenity and her actions that Beryl and the others feared, when it was you, you three she truly feared. And she was completely justified. »

        « Beryl was a mad woman, » Setsuna said, glad she could speak in this odd situation, « Her opinions hardly matter. »

        « At least this time, you had the good sense not to appear, » the Soldier of Ruin said in support of the red-head, « If she had known you lived, she would have been utterly unstoppable and unreasonable. »

        « So where does Jurai stand in all of this? » Setsuna asked.

        « What’s going on? » Haruka whispered, then to the others, « Who are you people?! »

        « Their names – »

        « Are Tsunami, one of the Triumvirate of Goddesses who created this Universe, » Tsunami spoke through Sammi, causing the walls to shake and the Senshi to shiver, she indicated the redhead, « Another goddess, of War, Fire and Time. »

        Haruka and Michiru backed away from that hate-filled gaze, trying to pull Setsuna with them. But Setsuna stood transfixed, defying the trio who faced her.

        « Am I being threatened? Admonished? » she laughed, « You little girls will never understand what had to be done. »

        « Like those other three I saved you from? » the redhead asked sweetly,  » ‘Sacrifices must be made’, anyone who believes that has nothing to live for. »

        Haruka growled at that.

        « I am aware of your relationship, » the girl replied, « My comment stands. You must be entirely unsatisfying, if your `beloved` partner would rather die at your side, than live alongside you. But I understand self-absorbed narcissism. You aren’t even homosexual, you would have partnered with anyone who would have fed your self-absorbed delusion that high-school bully viciousness and nihilism equates to maturity and a soldierly attitude. I merely thought you grew out of that idiocy after high school. » The girl concentrated on Setsuna. « But since none of you ever left, I suspect that’s the level of thinking I’ll have to deal with. »

        Setsuna heard Michiru’s hiss and wondered at the reality of these events, No, I felt the death of the Time Gate. This is real. « You haven’t answered my question. »

        « You haven’t asked one you don’t already know the answer to, » the redhead told them.

        « So do you threaten us now? »

        « I think I will continue to let the others beat you up. Let them learn how cowardly and selfish you three are, before you meet formally. »

        « And who made you the arbiter of our fates? » Haruka demanded as she stepped forward. The redhead’s disdain infuriated the combative Senshi.

        « I did, » Tsunami told them through Sasami.

        Setsuna gulped. « No threats, no ultimatums? » Setsuna taunted, ignoring Michiru’s warning hand on her shoulder.

        « No, they would be useless, as was this interview, » the Soldier of Runi said reluctantly as she shook her head. She looked at her two companions. « I apologize for having wasted your time. You are free to do as needed. »

        The trio vanished, leaving the three Outers alone, with the rubble of the Time Gate still heaped up in the middle of their living room.

        « Mfurble, » Setsuna said, and nearly gagged at her sudden reversion to her current, wounded state.

        Michiru moved past her on crutches, with Haruka hovering nearby both of them. Both had been badly stung by the girls words.

        « Are these pebbles really the Time Gate? » Michiru asked.

        Setsuna nodded.

        Michiru and Haruka turned to face Setsuna. « I think we’d better know about Triton, and everything that was done in our name. »

        Setsuna looked at the determination in the pair’s faces and could barely keep from smiling, As if a pair of high-schoolers would be able to fathom such political subtleties. I can’t dissemble with a mouth full of wires, and if I write it down, they can check it against what is said later. Curse them for revealing that now of all times!

        « So what did you two find on Triton? » Hotaru asked Asuka and Sasami.

        « Alternative energy research projects, » Asuka said sharply, « Sorry, it’s not you I’m mad at. »

        « Somehow that doesn’t sound like something to get worked up about, » Hotaru suggested.

        « That depends on what is being extracted, » Sasami said brittlely, what she had seen had dampened her usually sunny outlook.

        It all dawned on Hotaru in a rush. « Is that why Serenity didn’t want the Jurains in the system. Because of what – we were doing to the Jurain exiles on Triton? »

        « I hope not, » Asuka replied, « I hope it was the Outers’ mad plan to deal with Beryl or one of their other, myriad enemies, and that the rest of the system knew nothing about it. It was just a start up program, an investigation, not full-scale production, but that is the way it was going. If they knew, and said nothing . . .  »

        Then the Moon Kingdom was one step from becoming a greater monster than Beryl, Hotaru thought, Its destruction kept it innocent. In the future, it would have been strong enough to easily defeat Beryl or anyone else, at the cost of its soul. « Wouldn’t Beryl’s methods make her worse? »

        « Beryl’s methods are more like a caring dentist with plenty of anesthetic, than Aztec open heart surgery the Triton process represents. Not pleasant, but you’ll live through them, » Asuka explained, « Beryl was harvesting a valuable crop. Triton was . . . the phrase ‘squeeze the very last drop of blood out of a turnip’ tells you all you need to know. To say there was a distinct lack of respect for the Jurain subjects of the process is probably a fair statement. ‘Look at what we can do, and you can’t stop us!’ As I said, I hope Serenity knew nothing about it, or if she did, she let Beryl succeed before the Moon Kingdom could be corrupted like that. »

        « I would have thought you’d say ‘fight to the end’, » Hotaru replied.

        « Towards the end of the Third Reich, I knew what the Allied soldiers would do when they uncovered the death camps, the Allies’ politicians already knew, but politicians and diplomats do what keeps them in power and attending parties. The soldiers would scythe through the population beyond what the Angel of Death did to the Egyptians. »

        « I wouldn’t tell her the rest, » Sasami told Asuka, then took Hotaru’s hand, « She’d blame herself for it. »

        « Blame myself for what? Not going with them? Letting Ami and my big sisters beat them up? What? »

        Sasami smiled and shook her head. If you didn’t want me to know, Hotaru groused as she frowned at Sasami, Why mention it at all?! Unless you want me to try to find out . . . especially to find out from the other Senshi, sneaky!

        « How did you know all that stuff about the Outers? It made you seem omniscient, » Hotaru said, « That rattled them. »

        « I asked the three Senshi from NeoSerenity’s court about those three, » Asuka said with a smirk, « I intended to seem omniscient. It made them wonder just how powerful I am, and what all I know. I learned that trick from Raccoon. »

        « But you still won’t tell me all you found? » Hotaru asked.

        « Better you don’t know, » Sasami said and shivered, then accepted Hotaru’s hug.

        Rei thanked the men who had taught her, improving her archery skills. She held the bow they had given her with both hands as she bowed. She watched them return to their comrades as everyone settled in for a ‘night’ of sleep. Everyone except our sheepdogs and our pathfinder . . . and me, she thought as she glanced at the target some 200 meters away, My last flight of arrows still feathers the target. I hit a meter wide target with all twenty-five arrows. Now all I have to do is keep practicing, she thought as she approached Davis-san, who seemed to be half-asleep or meditating as he walked.

        « Everyone else has turned in for the night, » she said.

        « I’m fine. If you want to try pathfinding again, I could give you a few more pointers. »

        No, I don’t want to seem foolish again, she thought, But he’s like grandfather, he doesn’t treat learning as foolishness. « Thank you – »

        « Wait. » He stopped walking and looked around. Searching for some threat or discontinuity Rei could not sense, yet.

        Rei could see nothing amiss, then she tried to feel the path. It isn’t there! she realized. « What happened?! » she whispered in fear.

        « An ambush. We’re supposed to flail around looking for the path, and stumble into a trap. » He made an odd gesture. The Italian Captain and the crystal headed forward, the rest of the force changed their disposition to cover the sectors vacated by the pair. They also made their own preparations. Within the camp, the men sensed the change and began stirring.

        The Italian Captain came towards Jeff. « Signorii? » the Captain asked.

        « You remember Matapan? » Davis-san asked.

        The Italian’s smile faded and his eyes narrowed. « Si! »

        Davis-san glanced at Rei. « Are you comfortable using that on someone? »

        Rei looked at the bow aand the quiver of arrows. « Yes . . . no, but I will use them. »

        « Bravo, » the Italian said, touching her shoulder, then he whispered to Rei, « He likes a little spark, a little fire. His kameraden, Asuka, bellisima confligrato – big fire, big, beautiful fire. Friends, the German Kameraden. »

        Rei blushed at that, but nodded. Friends only. I don’t need or want a ‘boyfriends’.

        « We’ll go forward, leaving the camp here. The best way to spring an ambush, is to walk in with full awareness. »

        Rei gulped and nodded. Nocking an arrow and following him as the Captain and the crystal disappear into the clouds. « That’s the path. » Rei pointed to it. « It’s one of those ‘almost’ paths you were talking about. »

        « That’s correct, and I think that’s where the trap lies. »

        « So do we swing around and come in from behind? » Rei asked.

        « Good thinking, but no. The others will do that. We walk straight in. » In a few steps, the trap became clear.

        « Oni, » Rei breathed as the six monsters seemed to appear out of the clouds.

        « And not the Lum variety, » Davis-san quietly agreed, then called out to them, « Excuse me! Can you direct me to the Coachella Valley, and the Carrot Festival there in? »

        The six massive brutes looked at each other in confusion.

        I can almost sympathize, Rei thought.

        The largest decided to clear the impasse by roaring and raising its club, as it charged. The odd red mark that appeared between and above its four eyes seemed too insignificant to cause it to stumble and fall. Davis-san was lining up another as Rei pushed the bow forward, took aim, controlled her frantic breathing, and released. The arrow buried itself in another brute’s shoulder. It bellowed with rage.

        Idiot! Rei berated herself as she tied one of her ofuda to the shaft of her next arrow.

        The beast was charging her as she aimed, controlled her breathing and released. The arrow buried itself to the feathers in the creature’s paunch. It waddled forward a few more steps before stopping to scratch idly at the wounds.

        Do I run? Do I run? Rei asked as she hastily tied another ofuda to another arrow. The huge creature toppled over and lay still. Of course he got the other four, while I was busy with one, Rei thought disgustedly as she observed him checking all the corpses.

        « See? » Davis-san asked as he wiped the blood from a wicked-looking fighting knife on one of the monster’s vests. « It isn’t so easy when you have to act quickly and dozens of lives hang on your decisions and actions. Next time, you’ll do better. »

        « Okay. Maybe the Sailor Senshi weren’t complete idiots. »

        « And Sailor Mars? »

        « I’m going to hold on to that grudge, » she told him and was furious when he just shrugged and began moving them again.

        Rei looked up at the Lord Kirin, from her prostration on the floor, as he sat back on his throne. I don’t care if he’s just a ‘concept’, he’s a lord of my religion, she thought, one step away from gibbering and wetting herself in terror.

        « Welcome, Davis-dono, many dark things are said about you and your doings, even here. Assassin, diplomat, Knight-Majeur of dark and cryptic Yig, discoverer of what all wish could remain hidden forever, what troubles do you bring to us this day? »

        Rei wanted to whimper. They not only know him, but we’ll be lucky to get out alive.

        « Your kind words warm my heart, » Davis-san replied.

        He was insulting you, Rei wanted to tell him, They’ll warm your heart, as they roast it over the coals somewhere.

        « Neither outre Yig, nor Han his son in shadows, has had a hand in this debacle, » the lord told them.

        « I thank you for you concern, milord. »

        « Hino Rei. »

        Rei tried the bury herself further in the floor as the kami spoke her name with amusement.

        « Beware Pluto, the guardian of the dead is no ally of yours, » he told her in a sympathetic tone.

        « Y – y- y- y- » she stammered uncontrollably.

        She is overwhelmed with gratitude for your concern for, and interest in, such a humble creature as herself, » Davis-san said obsequiously. Rei could only nod.

        « Perhaps a trip to an alcove, where she can refresh herself first, » the lord suggested.

        She felt Davis-san lifting her by her arms pits. She managed to get her feet under her so she walked, instead of being dragged, where they were going. « You don’t walk up to the major domo of a god’s mansion and simply announce yourself, » she hissed to him as they walked.

        « Demanding to see the man himself is pretentious, so we inquired at the servant’s entrance, » Davis-san replied smoothly, « And I do have a reputation to uphold. »

        « That reputation is going to get us both killed! » she replied as they walked through the doorway and into a very modern, Japanese-style bathroom. She looked around in amazement.

        « Conceptual, remember. Do your business, take a quick shower and be ready for more. There’s a big difference between what is said here and what is done. They know what I’m for, and that I have a talent for finding the tip of the iceberg before the ocean liner ever gets close, » he told her, then turned his back on her, extending his arms so she could drape her raiments on him, « If I’m here, they know the situation is worse than they thought. »

        She carefully put her shirt over his head so he couldn’t see her naked, and resisted the urge to simply strangle him with it. « So what do you intend to do to those wizards who hijacked the souls from where they need to go? »

        « I have a few plans, » Davis-san said, « That depends on what they tell me to do when they meet with us. »

        « They? » Rei asked as she poured the surprisingly refreshing water over her head.

        « You don’t think I gave them my meishi for grins do you? I wanted a meeting. »

        « Meeting? With the Lord of this place?! » Rei found the cool tile of the floor against her head a very refreshing experience. Soothing, she thought as she lay there, twitching.

        The families had a hard time slipping between and among each other. « I appreciate the protection, but the space is so small. » Makoto commented as she dodged Ami carrying in yet another box of text books.

        « Ami, » Makoto said to the girl who seemed to be drawing in to herself or hiding behind her studies, rather than facing the problems, « I’m sorry about this. »

        Ami paused in her frantic rushing, and stared at her. « You didn’t do it, » Ami assured her, « Those other . . . three . . . did. » Ami seemed to wind down as she remembered what she’d done during the fight.

        Maybe she’s remembering what I did to that woman, Makoto thought and clenched her fists, then instantly released them as pain shot through her hands, I couldn’t let them steal Hotaru away, and Kiima’s visions have always been true, as if she’s remembering her past life. She tried not to show how much her hands hurt, especially not to Ami.

        « At least we have rooms for Hotaru and Kiima, » Ami said, trying to be a good hostess, « I guess we have to double up. »

        « Or our parent would have to, » Makoto sugested. The pair paused to consider that possibility, and immediately laughed at that image.

        « I can sleep with Kiima or Hotaru, » Makoto offered, « If you need the space for your study material. »

        Ami flinched at that, and carefully looked at all the boxes of books and equipment the four girls had helped her pack, and carry to and from the trucks the Commodore had sent. « Is that what I’ve become? I care more about my studies than the people around me, people who need me? » Ami asked in a small voice, « Just my studies. »

        « It’s all right! » Makoto assured her, laying her hands on Ami’s shoulders and wondering what she’d started.

        « No, it isn’t all right, » Ami said firmly as she pulled away from Makoto.

        « Why do you study so hard? » Makoto asked, « You seem to get 100%, even on pop quizzes. It’s like you already know everything. »

        « Not quite, » Ami said as she finally set down the box of equipment she’d been holding, « I have to have good grades to get into Todai. »

        « Why Todai? With your smarts you could go to Germany or America and study. If we are the Sailor Senshi, they’d probably have fights to get a hero like you there. »

        « I had a chance to go to Germany to study, » Ami said, « I turned it down. I couldn’t figure out why. I guess I gave it up to stay with the Senshi. »

        « Oh, » Makoto said to cover her embarrassment, « Couldn’t you, I don’t know, reapply? »

        « No. Someone else has already been chosen. Besides, if we are the Senshi, I’ll never be a doctor, I’ll just be what the Princess needs, a warrior. None of this is necessary. »

        Makoto thought Ami was quietly coughing, then she realized the girl was crying. « What are you talking about? » Makoto tried not to shout, « You’ll probably be the chief surgeon of the biggest hospital they had, or spend most of the time doing important research. » Makoto flexed her muscles. « I bet three of us have to gang up on you to drag you out of your lab to have fun and breathe fresh air. ‘No, watching bacteria under a microscope all day is fun!’, ‘Who’ll look after all my boiling test tubes!' » Makoto said, trying to sound and pose like Ami.

        « You’re crazy, » Ami said, wiping away tears of laughter.

        « Let’s go see those other Senshi. They’ve been at it a while. They’ll set you straight! »

        « Do you think? » Ami asked in a small voice, looking at Makoto with hope.

        « Of course. What else would there be to do in paradise. No war, no crime, no real problems. We’d probably have to turn out for holidays and ceremonial occasions. » Makoto put on a fake smile and waved her hand slowly to the nonexistent, cheering crowds. « But what would we do the rest of the time? »

        « Yes, that makes sense, » Ami said, « Let’s go find out. » Ami led the way as they sought out the other Senshi.

        Rei stared at the massive yumi bow in her hands. A five-man bow, and enchanted so I can use it, she thought with an odd mix of elation and despair. She rested the bow on her shoulder and with her free hand she pulled the necklace from inside her shirt. The comma-shaped magatama brightened on contact with her hand, a clear jewel that seemed to grow or darken in response to her will. The chain that held it felt like leather, but was clearly metal. Rei stared at the jewel, and her reflection in it. What could I ever have done to deserve this? she wanted to ask, But if I don’t really deserve it, maybe they’ll take it away from me. Maybe if I just think I don’t deserve it, they’ll take it away. « I don’t believe it, » she whispered as they walked along, heading back through the spirit lands to home.

        « I don’t see what you’re concerned about, » Jeff told her as they walked, « I think you impressed them very favorably. »

        « I fainted! » Rei shouted back at him, and wanted to smash that smiling face with both fists.

        « After you made a very respectful bow, and a very polite greeting to all the majors. »

        « I fainted. »

        « You were overcome by reverence and awe, » Jeff replied, « You are also pathfinding with excellent skill. »

        Rei nearly stumbled at that. She straightened up and glared at him. « You don’t understand, » she muttered.

        He put his hand on her shoulder, not the prelude to something romantic, just a sempai with his kohai. « You did fine, considering it was your first attempt. They were impressed enough to gift you with that bow and that necklace. If you have to be worried about something, remember that the gods never give a gift that doesn’t advance their goals. »

        « They can’t have liked me, » she commented, she tried to shrug his hands away, but his hands stayed on her shoulders.

        « They’re gods, not bureaucrats and politicians. They have a different standard for what is appropriate human behavior. Believe me, a respectful greeting, then fainting dead away is extremely respectful behavior. » He removed his hands and stepped away.

        « You didn’t faint, » Rei countered.

        « I’m a Great Old One, that makes a big difference. »

        « You keep saying that, » Rei replied, « What is a Great Old One? What do they do? »

        « Very well. I’ll make that our next stop. After all, you do need to know. I will say this. They are not monolithic. Some are ravagers, others are builders, and some in between. It isn’t a simple thing, but there is one thing they have in common, or rather they should, but some don’t. »

        She smiled at him, feeling better, but still curious. « Don’t what? »

        Sasami cradled the egg in her lap. The patterns of light and shadow danced along its surface. Moving to trail Sasami’s hand, as she stroked the smooth, leathery surface.

        Hotaru giggled as she `tickled` the egg, and the patterns of greens and blues in the shell glittered in response.

        « You two seems to be having fun, » the Scholarly Dragon carefully poured more tea into their comparatively tiny teacups.

        « I just wish we could cuddle them all, » Sasami said, carefully hugging the egg and causing a quickening of the changes of the color patterns on the surface, « Why don’t all dragons hatch their eggs this way? »

        « Probably because they’d be afraid the humans would steal the eggs, » the dragon rumbled, « Or that hired help couldn’t achieve what you two are doing. »

        « These will be for us? » Hotaru asked.

        « One for each of you, if they approve, » the dragon corrected, « They do have some say in the matter. »

        « Will they grow as big as you? » Hotaru asked expectantly.

        « I seriously doubt it, » Sasami giggled, « He is not just an ordinary dragon. »

        « The other thing is, that they grow very slowly, » the Scholarly Dragon said, « They’ll only be the size of a bear by the time you’d normally grow to old age. »

         » ‘Normally’? » Hotaru asked.

        « You are a magical creature, same as the dragons. The combination will give you virtual immortality. Beyond just slowing the aging process to nearly nothing, your resistance to disease or being killed would increase. »

        « How much? » Sasami asked.

        « For you, not much, for our little firefly? » he let the two girls laugh before he continued, « I wouldn’t recommend watching any H-bomb tests from ground zero, but an assassin with poison or a knife would probably die of old age before having any effect. »

        « What do they get out of it? » Hotaru asked as she stared at the egg.

        « The same, and other benefits that would be hard for a human to understand the importance of, » the dagon explained.

        « Is that why you’re so sweet on Asuka? » Sasami asked slyly, then both girls dissolved in giggles.

        The dragon frowned at both of them. Ryo-Oh-Ki approached the egg in Sasami’s lap, sniffing it carefully, and ready to bolt if the egg reacted.

        When the pair quit looking at each other, or him, and reigniting their laughter, Hotaru frowned at the other eggs in the warming bowl. « I think the others are jealous, » she said, « And the last ones we touched must feel lonely. »

        « They understand there are only two of you, » the dragon explained.

        « RYOW! » Ryo-Oh-Ki complained.

        « You aren’t human, » the dragon told the cabbit, « Besides, it’s a useful lesson to a dragon that sometimes you have to take turns. »

        « I wish we could bring the others, » Sasami looked at the other eggs and said.

        « And what would you tell them? » the dragon rumbled in amused response,  » ‘You are destined to be a Sailor Scout, here’s an emotionally and physically fragile egg to help you learn responsibility’. I can imagine what they’d tell us in reply. Can you? I doubt any of it could be repeated around children. »

        The two girls laughed at the rough voice, and the understanding feeling behind it.

        « Some might want to be Senshi again, » Sasami suggested.

        « They could also hate the idea of being a Senshi, and all the responsibilities and calls on their life. Remember, you’ve only seen a glimpse of the real long-term costs of the Senshi ‘lifestyle’. NeoSerenity was delighted to have two children to play with, but did you see any other children? Did you see any evidence of children? Crayon marks on the wall, clutter of toys, harried or stern governesses trying to get them into bed while the rest of the court is all stirred up? I didn’t, and my senses are very much stronger than yours. I have to conclude there weren’t any. So imagine telling a bunch of girls who are just entering the boy-crazy stage that ‘Guess what, no husbands, no boyfriends, no kids, forever.’ I can think of pleasanter ways of committing suicide. »

        « They may deal with it in other ways, » Sasami said, then glanced at Hotaru’s stunned expression, « I grew up in a royal court. They were planning on my half-brother and my sister marrying, and no one thought it was a bad idea. When people think you can’t possibly understand, or aren’t worth paying attention to, you hear a lot of things. »

        « My point is, they should not be forced into their ‘destiny’ by us. If they are called to duty again, they should be given a choice, not drafted against their will. The idea that ‘the Princess’ has the right to usurp the lives of others without regard to their wants, needs and desires, is still tyrany. No matter how you dress it up, it’s still arrogant piracy under a crown. That is definitely not the way to treat your friends. »

        « You don’t like the idea of Queen Serenity? » Hotaru asked.

        « She didn’t see Triton, and I haven’t told her, » Sasami reminded him.

        « Nor did I. I saw the ruins in Jupiter’s atmosphere and on the Moon, » the Scholarly Dragon said, « I felt what had been ground into the fabric of the place and the space around it after centuries of Queen Serenity’s rule. Honestly, I wouldn’t have sided with Beryl, but I wouldn’t have assisted Serenity in any way. It makes a good fairy tale, but add real people with real lives, and it becomes a nightmare for them. The rulers can still live the fairy tale. The French Revolution is one example, history has many of them. The difference between the aristocracy and a pack of vampires is nil. »

        « Unfortunately I’ve seen the same on Jurai, » Sasami said, « And it’s gotten worse. The people who actually get in and do the work, either with their hands or with their brain, and has to back it up, they’re worthy of respect. Like my Grandmother Seito, she doesn’t just issue orders and sit back, she is always at the heart of things, taking the risks along with her soldiers. » Sasami frowned, stroked the egg in her lap. « Someone who just sits around and chatters or critiques, they deserve to be thrown down the stairs and set on fire. »

        Hotaru nodded grimly at that and sipped her tea. « I don’t think Usagi would be like that, » she assured the others.

        « I have a question none of you seem to have considered, » the dragon rumbled as he refilled the tea cups, « What do you do if Usagi either never reappears as Sailor Moon, or doesn’t want to become Queen? »

        The two girls thought hard about that.

And Now For Something Completely Ridiculous

        First clue you’ve gone and become a ‘significant person’, Jeff thought with disdain, and glanced at Asuka who just rolled her eyes as she realized she’d been caught in the same trap.

        « Surrender now, or watch these two die, painfully and horribly! » The unsynchronized maniacal laughter from the monster’s two heads that followed, was almost insulting.

        « I’m sooo scared! » Jeff clasped his hands under his chin and whined, only Rei and Hotaru seemed to understand he was just acting.

        « Admiral Scheer, battle turn, the Honor of Rottweil hangs in the balance! » Asuka wailed, in German, at the top of her lungs.

        Ami’s brow furrowed as she tried to understand what she thought she’d heard.

        « You will surrender yourselves! » More maniacal laughter.

        The tall blonde drew herself up and pontificated, « Sacrifices have to be made. »

        « Because we spent all the money to buy them, on spike heels and lipstick, » Asuka and Jeff intoned as solemnly as possible, in Latin.

        « They’re about to do something unwise? » Asuka asked in Latin.

        « He’s dodged most of the Senshi’s attacks, but since he so conveniently has a grip on us – »

        « No talking! » the monster shook them both. Asuka took the moment to scratch the six eyes on the head near her, while Jeff dug his thumbs into two of the three eyes on the head on his side. It screamed in agony at the assault.

        « You make such scary noises! » Asuka and Jeff shouted as they swept enough of the creature’s legs that it toppled over. Jeff landing his whole weight on his knee, into the creature’s gut. Asuka aimed slightly south and got a pain-filled gasp for her superb targeting.

        « I’m. Not. Going. To. Ask. How, » Jeff said in Latin as he gripped the creature’s ears and pounded the stunned its head on the pavement, making and deepening a dent in the asphalt.

        « Multiple targets, » Asuka replied in Latin, as she kneed another goal, « Plus I’m a girl in anime, it’s easy. »

        « Oh no! No one can save us now! We’re doomed! » he wailed in Japanese as he wrenched the monster’s head back and forth until a loud ‘crack‘ sounded and the monster’s three eyes on that head glazed over.

        « Meany! Scary man! Woe is me! » Asuka screeched in seeming fear as continued her assault with intent.

        Before Jeff or Asuka could switch to the remaining head, Makoto and Haruka lifted them off the monster and clear. The two Senshi were more afraid of the `victims` they were rescuing than the monster. The other Senshi had surrounded the ogre who was still locked in his own private world of pain.

        « Senshi Villain Vaporization! » they called, reducing their target to a smoldering spot on the concrete.

        Jeff knelt and caught Makoto around the knees, Asuka did the same for Ami. Both Senshi froze in terror at the possibilities. « Oh thank you! I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t saved me! » the pair chorused. Both Senshi tried, unsuccessfully, to pry the pair loose.

        « Beaten him to death with your bare hands? » Rei offered with a nervous laugh.

        Jeff released Jupiter’s knees and stood up, taking care not to stand up through her skirt. He put his hands on her shoulders. « I must reward you all, somehow. » Jeff saw Jupiter’s eyes get all sparkly. « I’ll take you all to ice cream! » Makoto seemed vaguely disappointed.

        Usagi’s hands dropped on Asuka’s shoulders, the girl’s expression one usually only seen on vampires and starving wolverines. « All we can eat? »

        « No, you’re right! We can’t, » Jeff lamented and covered her face, « Once I know your favorite flavors, I could deduce your secret identities! You’re right! »

        « It took you that long to figure it out? » Asuka teased, grimacing under the grinding force of Usagi’s grip on her shoulders.

        « You’re both so clever! I can’t do it, » Jeff said and shook his head.

        « M – m – m – m – Mako-chan?! » Usagi whined while Makoto hadn’t the faintest idea what had just happened.

        « Mako-chan? » Asuka asked as she finally pried Usagi lose and looked at the nearby aquarium, « That’s why they’re always in this part of the Minato ward! You’re a Mako shark. »

        « She’s a brain coral. » Jeff pointed to Ami.

        « You’re obviously a squid. Iron grip and two tentacles longer than the rest. » Asuka pointed at Usagi’s hair to make her point.

        Usagi stared at Asuka in horror. « Squid ice cream? » she whimpered in dismay.

        « A lionfish, » Jeff suggested of Mars, who was dragging Usagi away, « Pretty, but full of ‘don’t touch me’ spikes. »

        Rei was too busy trying to explain to Usagi that she was the squid, not the ice cream.

        « If I’m ice cream, then I’m a cannibal too! » Usagi wailed.

        Rei was rendered speechless by that bit of logic.

        « As chubby as she is, » Asuka said of Neptune, « Probably a grouper. »

        « Chubby! » Michiru protested.

        « Metabolism slows down in your thirties, » Jeff said sagely with a sad shrug.

        A black cloud of despair appeared over Michiru’s head as she shattered into a thousand little pieces. « Th – th – thirties! » the pile wailed as it further dissolved under the black rain.

        « Kelp, » Asuka said of Sailor Uranus, who was trying to sweep Michiru back into some semblance of order. She stumbled and fell face-first into the pile, which seemed to be all the encouragement Michiru needed.

        « Later, » Michiru told her, « When the children aren’t around. »

        « I can see you as the old fisherman, who stumbled onto a new and unique fishing site, » Jeff told Hotaru.

        Hotaru smiled and clapped her hands. « I always wanted to be a fisherman! »

        « But an aquarium? » Pluto said disdainfully.

        « And you as the crusty old janitor preserving the hallowed halls of icthyography from her depredations, » Jeff replied to her. Pluto’s eye ticced at the implication.

        « Fish-watching, » Ami supplied.

        « Then in an epileptic battle, fishing spear against mop handle, you both fall in and catalyzed the transformation. It all makes perfect sense. »

        « Perfect sense to a loon, » Rei commented, as she’d finally succeeded in convincing Usagi there was something more important than squid ice cream.

        « They think I’m a squid? » Usagi asked in a small voice.

        « No, that you change into one, » Rei said, and braced herself for another Usagi crying attack.

        « A dirty, slimy disgusting thing with all those tentacles, that do all those evil things to innocent girls in all those boys’ manga? » Usagi said in a surprisingly lucid tone.

        « Ye – es, » Rei said, still braced and awaiting the explosion.

        Instead, Usagi smiled and stared at her `advisors`. « Did I ever mention how much I loved ‘Space Invaders’? All those slimy tentacled things to blast! » she said as she smiled wider and took aim with her wand.

        Artemis and Luna scattered as Usagi shouted, « Turn me into a squid will you! »

        « Stop her! » Pluto commanded as she charged after Usagi, « They control the pension plan! »

        « Good to see her priorities are straight, » Asuka said.

        « Our job is done, » Jeff told Asuka.

Sailor Jupiter II 6 – Then What’s That Gun You’re Totin’?

        Rei looked at the oddest and largest room she’d ever seen. « This is conceptual, right? I have no idea where I dreamed this up. »

        « No. This place has a reality all its own. Two, white walls in the vast distance, and fibers, threads, twine, ropes and great hawsers running from the left to the right, from the beginning of Creation to the end. The lines separate, join others, return, and some simply terminate. »

        « Was white wash all they could afford? » Rei asked about the whiteness of the room, the walls, the threads, everything. The color we’re bringing seems a direct affront, she thought.

        « Not entirely. Let me show you something. » Davis-san took her hand and the two of them moved through the room. Somehow they missed all the fibers that appeared to cover every empty space, as if the clear path had always been there, just hidden from her eyes. They approached a great hawser that had many fibers splitting off and joining it. « Look at this. » Davis-san pointed to a tiny black spot at the tip of a single fiber.

        Even from here I can feel the corruption and evil radiating off that tiny speck of black in this sea of white, she thought before asking, « What is that? »

        « A parasitical possibility thread. This, » he said as he indicated the room, « Is everything. Not just what is, but everything that could be. Every choice, every variation, everything that could be conceived, and a good deal that couldn’t. »

        « You mean if I got up tomorrow, and decided to walk into the Diet building wearing only a flaming hat and whipped cream, and threw natto at the Prime Minister, you could find a universe where that happened? »

        « Certainly, as long as natto and whipped cream exist in that universe at that time, it is a possibility. »

        « What does this have to do with Great Old Ones? » Rei asked as she shook her head, « I’m completely lost. I thought the Great Old Ones were just stories. »

        « Maybe in your multiverse. In the rest of reality. » He shrugged. « Who cut that thread of possibility do you think? Who destroyed all the lives that represented a threat to the rest of all of this? Who slaughtered a single grain of sand to save every bit of dust or larger particle in an entire star system? »

        « The Great Old Ones? » Rei asked worriedly as she looked around, « You do realize that ‘grain of sand’ represents billions of lives. » She pointed at the tiny black spot. She felt herself shaking. I don’t know if I’m more afraid or angry, she thought as she controlled herself.

        « More, much more. Do you know the difference between a googol and a googolplex? A googol is 10 to the hundredth power, a googolplex, is 10 to the googolth power. The numbers represented here dwarf even those. But in more human terms, would you be willing to snuff out a dozen innocent lives among ten thousand vicious, irredeemable criminals, to save every man, woman and child on Earth? »

        « No, » Rei said firmly. She couldn’t look at him.

        « A Great Old One would. And here, many have done it, many times. »

        « That’s horrible, » Rei said. She felt ill just thinking about it.

        « Not doing it is worse, » Davis-san said softly, not chiding, just stating.

        « You can’t justify killing the innocent with the guilty! » Rei insisted, her voice shaking with emotion.

        « Does disease take sides? Do traffic accidents take only the guilty? Does cancer only appear as a mercy to those in pained, extreme old age, or does it strike children too? » Davis-san asked sternly, « Dream of a utopia, where everyone is blessed, all you want. The real world is represented by what happens in this room. Actions of a society have consequences on all those around them. If a group reaches a point where they would threaten other possibilities, even all the others in their vicinity, what would you do? Let them destroy an infinitely greater number of lives, or would you take those who refused to speak up along with those who actively supported the danger? You’re also assuming that the necessary attitudes and changes in the majority of societies that are clipped are anything like the evil you can comprehend. The cannibalism and ritual torture of the Japanese Imperial Army, the death camps of the Nazis’, Stalin’s mass murders, the Belgian murders in the Congo and the Chinese Communists’ massacres all together wouldn’t show up as a blip in this place. It goes so far beyond your conception of human evil that it’s impossible to correlate. So the threat is very real, and some less villainous lives are sacrificed with the irredeemably guilty, but that correlation and judgement is not the task of the Great Old Ones. The task, for those who follow it, is to cull the weeds. Not to judge whether a weed is better or worse than other weeds. A rose is a pretty flower, but in a corn field, it’s a weed. »

        « You’d have to be insane to do this job, » Rei told him, then covered her mouth, « I’m sorry, » she apologized and bowed.

        « For a revelation and insight? Hardly reason to apologize. You have it exactly right. You would have to be insane to do this job properly. From a human standpoint. This clipping near the black spot, but not completely removing it, shows craftsmanship, for lack of a better term. There is a chance, however slight, that events will rearrange and these people will redeem, at the last moment. If they do, this thread can be grafted into another, and all those lives will continue. This is the work of Cthulhu, or Yig, or one of the ones who actually take some pride in their work. They don’t `care` about the people, in a conventional sense, but they do display some pride in their workmanship. Others wouldn’t care how far back the thread was removed. Those don’t last at this job. »

        « What’s done with the thread after it’s clipped off? » Rei asked, feeling dizzy and nauseated at the implication.

        « The Great Old One consumes it. All the corrupted potential, and all the vast energy of an entire possible existence. It’s why they are so powerful. It is also an indication of the care some take with the job. Clipping it back further means more and better energy, but there is the realization that something built this place, and it is vastly more powerful than the gardeners who work here. »

        « Have you done this, this obscenity? » Rei asked dryly as she crossed her arms and gave him her sternest disapproval, to hide her incipient disgorgement.

        « Yes, once or twice. Further towards the end of time, rather than the beginning. You’re really not supposed to alter anything before your present. I tried to clip off as little as possible. You hate me for that, that’s fine. Like I said, you need to understand it. If you want to see something even I think of as obscene, then follow me. »

        Rei reluctantly took his hand as they traveled. I’m glad to be away from that, but is where we’re going any better? I want to shiver, or berate him, or scream for cosmic justice, but this is no different than a garden. Grandfather is just as ruthless in removing what does not belong. But my Grandfather isn’t destroying thousands of billions of lives when he does it, she thought unhappily, Why do the gods permit this? He hinted that there was an even greater being, why does that being permit this?

        « Here. » Davis-san said of a thick bundle of frayed ropes that narrowed down to a single thread, only to blossom again into the thick bundle. The pattern repeated itself several dozen times.

        « And what is this? » Rei couldn’t keep the disdain from her voice.

        « This is where you live. This is why I can’t find my way back home, because this collection is not connected to the rest by any means. »

        « This is home? » she asked as she looked down the length, « It just starts out of nothing, and it just ends. It doesn’t make it to either far wall. The beginning or end of the universe. »

        « Creation, each thread is a multiverse. Otherwise, you’ve got it right. Also, this tight bundle means the possibilities are likewise limited. So it’s unlikely that you’d throw natto at the Prime Minister, at least as long as you stay in this multiverse. Everything in this multiverse is focused on collecting data, and getting an answer. The creatures who created all this will have their answer soon, and with it, the need to continue this experiment ends. These bulges are all roughly 40,000 years long. » He moved to the area between the bulges. « Then all the possibilities are wound up, ended and a single thread continues until the explosion of possibilities. » He moved to the next bulge « Then it all folds up again. You want to be outraged? » He gestured at the whole length. « Look, examine the entire strand, no black, no corruption. These are innocents, folded up and tucked away to be pulled out to serve again when the experiment is adjusted. This, I can revile. This, I can wish for power to do something about. But I can’t, even the mightiest can’t destroy this, or they choose not to. All must watch this stand here and endure. I endure by hoping that the victims get rewarded, and the guilty are punished in a court far higher than one I can reach. The worst is this. » He led her to the frayed end of the last bulge, where the tangle didn’t come together, the fibers simply ended, instead of contracting as the others had.

        « What’s this? When is this? » Rei asked, and yanked her questing hand back, « Can I touch it? »

        « Yes. A human can’t affect things here. »

        She ran her fingers over the threads which weren’t clipped cleanly like the blackened tip Davis-san had shown her, but frayed as if they had broken under tension. They don’t feel like anything I recognize, she thought, Not stone, not steel, not any kind of thread. She turned to him. « Can you do anything about this? »

        « This last bulge is the time you are living in. When is, in a little over a thousand years. The normal bulge is 40,000 years, but this one is only 23,000. So the creators much have found their answer. They’ll just need about 1300 years to analyze their data and shut things off. »

         » ‘Shut things off’, you make it sound like turning off a light switch! » Rei shouted at him, « How many lives does this represent? What’s the scientific notation for this level of murder? »

        « Roughly 6.835279 x 10 to the 38th power, assuming only creatures of human-level sentience and above, and rate of population growth similar to the others. That just covers the missing 17,000 years. »

        Rei felt the bile rising in her throat at the enormity of it. « Can’t you do something? » she croaked.

        « Yes, of course I can. Grafting these torn possibilities onto other possibilities is also a function of the Great Old Ones. Although I’m not strong enough for something this complicated and extensive. Yet. But I have 1300 years before I’m bending the rules to do it. And I have a feeling, long before then, I’ll be able to enlist some help to do it. Although, I find your hypocrisy on the subject quite fascinating. »

        « Hypocrisy? » Rei asked in a rage, « To save all those lives? »

        « And disrupt vastly more. You don’t think having all of those extra people simply dropped into a possibility won’t create disruptions? This isn’t a static display. When we make a change, the changes ripple through the entire structure. Whether those changes are cutting out a corrupt universe, or grafting in another. This is going to send changes like shockwaves through the entire web. How many corrupt universes might be saved by grafting all this onto the mass of the rest. How many of those corrupt universes will have to be regrafted onto some other possibility? How many people is this going to affect? How many great symphonies will never be written because someone from your universe wrote some similar bit of doggerel. How many true soul mates won’t meet because they found someone mostly acceptable from your universe? How many wars will begin because some madman with a touch of insight, notices a few dozen people who weren’t there before a certain date, although everyone else remembers them always being there, and she starts a bloody crusade against these ‘alien interlopers’? »

        Rei’s certainty and fury had drained away as he spoke, uncertainty had raced in to fill and overfill the void. « Is it better to let them die? » she asked in a whisper.

        « No, they should be grafted on. But that is my point. A Great Old One would never consider those very human concerns. They would mainly consider the best matches to graft them into, but not the implications of the graft. That’s not their job. Another important question is how high an energy level should all your multiverses be grafted onto? Your possibility strings are fairly high in energy that is what it takes to fuel you, the martial artists of Nerima, the Jurains, all the others, and the monsters and villains you all face. If you were grafted into a lower energy stream, there would be no need for Sailor Moon or other monster hunters. Monsters would only be things of legend, not fact. A higher energy level, and because you’re all used to operating with less energy, every one of your people would become a creative genius. However, all the priests, magicians, and heroes would be relegated to be backbenchers or office ladies, because they wouldn’t be powerful enough to deal with the native monsters, except by your more creative thinking. Which fate would be the best thing for the majority of the people? What would your decision be? »

        « Mine? » Rei said in a strangled tone, her eyes wide, « That’s too important a decision to leave to me! »

        « See. It’s not so easy when it’s your decision. A human can’t make those kinds of decisions, without going mad. A Great Old One can, because from a human perspective, they are already completely mad. It requires a callousness beyond human ken to accomplish this job, but the best also care about things. I’m trying to tell you, you can’t try to shoehorn human motivations onto creatures who can decide the fates of universes, it’s an exercise in futility. It’s like asking why evil exists in the world. For a Judeo-Christian you have to have faith that God allows it for a reason. For the Shinto and the Buddhist, I’ve heard you rationalize it as a balance. Whichever way you look at it, it’s still part of us. »

        « So paradise on Earth is denied us by design? You can save all those people? » Rei asked, grasping for some hope in this place, « My descendants? »

        « Not yet, but soon. Time doesn’t really matter here. Or rather, time as you know it travels from left to right, and I have 1300 years to grow strong enough myself or collect allies who are. Of course, the personal cost to me will be something, » he said with a wry smile, « You’ll be lucky never to understand. So I will be punished for being able to do this, or think about it without slitting my wrists. »

        I want to tell him to forget it then, Rei thought as she turned away, I don’t want to hurt someone, but the cost of not doing it is so high! Everybody who will be, at that time. How many times have we all been annihilated to be resurrected to play our parts again? I know I believe in cycles, endlessly repeating. But knowing the end it truly coming, knowing the date and the means. It’s too much to bear. She let her shoulders slump as the weight of these revelations weighed her spirit down. But what if it is forestalled, who would be hurt then? She paused to gather her thoughts again, He’s right, just thinking about it would drive a human mad. He obviously already planned to do it, and I’m second guessing just discussing it! She sighed deeply. « I want to leave, » Rei said.

        « You wanted to know about Great Old Ones that was the most jarring example I could give you. » He turned her away from the bundle, soothing her frantic thinking somewhat.

        « Somehow I figure instructive and jarring, are synonyms in your vocabulary. »

        « When I don’t have time for a gentler course, » Davis-san admitted, « They do tend to overlap quite a bit. I’ll take you home. It’s been a difficult few hours. »

        She shook herself and stretched. « Hours, it feels like weeks! » Rei complained, « I’m sure it couldn’t be hours. »

        « Objectively, it’s been about six to seven hours. Subjectively, it’s been 23 days. And quite a 23-day period for you, even by my standards. You led an army to the Halls of Judgement, killed an oni single-handed, met with 14 of the major powers of your religion. »

        « Fainted in front of them, » she corrected him with a frown.

        « Then saw all that ever was, is or will be, and made arrangements with a minor power to save your entire multiverse from disintegration, » Davis-san said as he smiled broadly, indulgently, « I think that’s quite sufficient to earn you a good rest. »

        « Thank you, » Rei said gratefully, « I was hoping to just find out who was sending out obscene books that killed my grandfather’s friends. »

        « I always hoped to be an engineer, » Davis-san replied, « The kind that drives trains, not the kind that designs them. I certainly didn’t get that. » He seemed to consider. « You know, I’ve never even gotten to drive one. Even at a Railroad Museum. »

        « My sympathies, » Rei said, with little sympathy at all.

        Rei was ready to jump for joy as they approached the fire, and their bodies. The doctor and Keiko were facing about a half-dozen thugs. Most of the thugs were on the ground, curled into balls. No one was moving, they might have been statues for all she knew. « I guess Keiko is a better fighter than I thought. »

        « A doctor also knows where to hit people to cause the most pain, » Davis-san replied and pulled Rei back out of the way of the spectral horse that galloped into the space between Rei and Davis-san, and their bodies.

        « There is a need for your services, » the noble figure in bronze armor atop the horse told them.

        Rei recognized the voice. « So this is your new job? » she asked politely of the man they had rescued on this very spot, « Congratulations. »

        The figure seemed embarrassed by her recognition. « There is a threat to Great Yamato. You must act –  »

        « I do not take orders, » Davis-san said, a strange undertone of power made his voice reverberate through the clearing, the horse shifted nervously in response, « I do take commissions. »

        The figure atop the horse pulled on the reins to quiet it. « There was a provision for that. » He leaned down, and from inside his armor, handed Davis-san an elaborately decorated box, as well as a very thick gray book, and a much thinner yellow one.

        « I will use these at my discretion, » Davis-san said darkly.

        « That is understood, » the figure said with a touch of mirth, « That is to be expected. She will of course accompany you. »

        « That too is her choice, » Davis-san replied sternly, « But considering who is making the request, I believe she will do it. Of her own free will. »

        The horse and rider bowed, before galloping off and vanishing in the distance.

        « I think someone has found something unpleasant, » Davis-san explained, « I also think that this has gone from an educational lark, to a full-blown campaign. »

        « Considering who is making the – request – I think I’ll go, » Rei said and smiled, « I do think my punishment for disobeying my Grandfather is getting a little abusive. »

        The hand that shook Kodachi awake wore the uniform of the Self Defense Forces. She had trouble focusing on the face for some reason.

        Before she could ask any of the thousand questions that cascaded through her mind, she received one. « Do you believe you are the inheritor of a bold samurai tradition? Of a family legacy of service to the Emperor, and through him, the gods themselves? »

        Kodachi shivered at that, but heard no disdain in the tone. « No, I know none of those delusions is real, » she said shamefully, « My dear brother still believes in all that. I know we were a merchant house who did well, and married into and bought an honorable title, nothing more. »

        « Would you like the opportunity to be the inheritor of a bold samurai tradition, and a family legacy of service to the Emperor, and through him, the gods themselves? Your brother is getting the same offer. His acceptance or refusal, will have no bearing on our offer to you. »

        Of course Tatewaki will accept, she thought as she sat up, He could hardly refuse. « What do you mean by ‘our’? » Kodachi stared as another figure stepped into doorway and back out. The odor of the reptile house wafted past. « Do Jeff-san or Asuka-chan know about you? » she asked fearfully.

        « They are who you will aid. »

        Rei looked up at the shattered spires of Tokyo as they walked among the modern ruins, mixed in with mutilated castles from an earlier time. « Is that a stegosaurus? » She pointed to the upraised rows of plates. « It’s huge, and that turtle shell you could – that isn’t a stegosaurus , and that isn’t a turtle, » she realized.

        « The myriad colorful, giant robots we’ve passed would also be a dead give away, » Davis-san said as they picked their way through the debris that nearly choked the roads. « It’s the great, gaping holes that bother me. They aren’t blast damage, or launch sites. »

        « This place looks like a child’s anime show, » Rei said in confusion as she tried to see some rationality in the place, « I’d almost expect the Sailor Scouts and all the other magical girls to be tramping through the streets proclaiming love and justice with every other breath. » She paused and stared at the pair of immense reptilian corpses. « I always thought those things were unkillable, unless they nobly sacrificed themselves. Even then, they were back for the next movie. »

        « I don’t think a sequel is going to get them out of this, » Davis-san said from where he was staring into a hole you could have lost an aircraft carrier in.

        « What was in there? » Rei asked as she edged towards the hole. She watched her footing, in case the ground collapsed.

        « A nightmare, » Davis-san said as if he were perplexed. He looked up at the sky and asked, « Have you ever been scared or badly hurt by something when you were little. Something frightened or wounded you so badly that even when you grew up, or got older, you were still uneasy about it. Even if you knew it couldn’t really hurt you. »

        Rei considered. « Yes, I guess. You have been, haven’t you? » she asked and watched him nod, still staring at the blue sky and fluffy clouds that wafted over. « What are you getting at? »

        « What was in there? » He pointed at the hole. « It would be something I’d find hilarious, but the aura of fear permeating the whole hole is overwhelming. Something was extremely frightened of it. »

        « What was ‘it’? » Rei demanded as she pulled him away to face her, « What is this place? »

        « We were told. The damage to this place was a ‘threat to Great Yamato’, the ancient form. Yet this doesn’t look like modern, or historical Japan. So this has to be the conception of Japan. Japan of the heart and mind, not the real one. » Davis-san shook himself. « What did you say? This place looked like an anime series? »

        « Yes, » Rei replied. I wish he wouldn’t look at me like that! I almost expect a beam of force to come pouring out of his eyes.

        « How familiar are you with children’s manga and anime? » he asked intently, and stepped towards her, « Do you recognize any of the victims? »

        « Some, a few, I, I don’t really read all that much, » Rei stammered as she stepped back.

        « Stop! » he ordered, and something in his tone made any further movement impossible for her.

        She wanted to shiver or turn away from that gaze, terrible as it was. He really is that thing! she thought as she tried to wrench her gaze away.

        « You are going to step off the edge. Two steps straight forward, then edge your way around the perimeter. » He stepped back and looked away, to allow her to escape.

        As she stepped away, he apologized. « I beg your pardon. When Asuka and I were quite young, we stopped a group of . . . individuals . . . who sought to end all human suffering. This has all the earmarks of the same impulse. To say it left me a bit unreasonable on that subject – »

        « Calling it an understatement is practically a lie. If one of them had appeared before you, I believe you would have torn it apart with your bare hands and teeth, » Rei replied, as the shakes took her. That was as bad as Lord Kirin and the others, she thought, Terrifying. « Are you calm now? »

        « Calm-er, » he admitted, « Yes, I would have killed them. I would not have harmed you. If I kill, it is instant and without warning. That isn’t very comforting, but if I’m merely angry, I’ll keep talking. Remember, they called me assassin and diplomat. Unless you’ve harmed or threatened my loved ones, I’ll always talk first, even if you’ve killed me. I don’t take that so personally. After a while it just gets tedious. »

        « You’ve been killed before? » Rei asked. He’s teasing me to calm me down, she thought, And it’s a silly enough thought it’s working. She chuckled nervously at the thought.

        « Great Old Ones can be killed. They just don’t stay dead. In strange eons, even death may die. »

        « That sounds like one of those spooky koans my grandfather says. You want my advice, let’s head to the Imperial residence. Tokyo is the center of Japan, and the Palace is the center of Tokyo, » she said, feeling better at having taken the lead, « What’s wrong with ending all human suffering? It sounds like paradise. »

        « The pain you suffered when you lost or broke your favorite toy, and the pain when you broke your arm or leg, which was worse? »

        « Huh? »

        « I know the pain of a broken limb went on for much longer, but at the moment of the trauma, could you tell which was greater? »

        « No? » Rei said, « What does that have to do with this place? »

        « I think this is where the children’s dreams were kept, and their worst nightmares were imprisoned. I don’t think there was just one attack. I think someone took advantage of conditions. One was after the nightmares, the other the dreams. »

        « I get the feeling you know both groups, » Rei said as she walked. The buildings are different from what they actually are, bigger, more impressive despite the battle damage, she thought, I think this is a child’s, the children of Japan’s, dream of Japan. So how does this relate? Why would two different groups attack? What is the connection?

        « So the pain at the instant of trauma was either the same or similar. Does that sound reasonable? »

        « Yes, » Rei said, « So you are trying to distract me from all of this and thinking about dreams, and what they could do with them? »

        « No, I’m trying to introduce you to the minds we may be facing, » Davis-san explained, « So to eliminate suffering you either have to eliminate the ability to feel physical or emotional pain, or eliminate the ability to translate pain into suffering. Does that follow? »

        « Maybe to you, but not to me. Stop! » Rei didn’t put her foot down, but hopped back a pace and leaned down. She brushed the debris off a small figure huddled on the ground. « She, she’s just a kid. Why tear her apart that way? What did she do to them? » She wiped her hands on the dirt. « There’s no blood. »

        « Because this is Japan. Death is part of life, so is violence. Blood is a problem. »

        Rei stood up and faced him. « All right, tell me about these people. I can guess who stole the nightmares. You and the others tried to talk around something. That thing is where the nightmares went. I can get the answers for that later. Who’d want to steal the dreams? »

        « If you eliminate the ability to feel pain, then you could break your arm or walk past a dying child, and all you’d be able to do is think about it, not feel anything. While there would be a few saints who’d watch out for other, but the majority of people would be callous beyond belief. The other alternative would make us less sentient than earthworms, who writhe in reaction to damage to them. I don’t think either change would benefit mankind. »

        « And they’d use our dreams to make us over into one of those things? » Rei asked, feeling her horror rise.

        « That’s the only way to do it, » Davis-san confirmed, « There’s other dangers to being reduced this way. Some of the Great Old Ones are neutral or even supportive to us because of who we are. Change that, and their – let’s call it tolerance of us, ends. We’d be exterminated the same way mosquitos were in the 1950’s. I don’t think our opponents have considered that, or maybe they have, and the benefit to them outweighs the detriment to us. »

        « That’s inhuman! » Rei exclaimed.

        « So are our opponents, » Davis-san replied calmly.

        « Then I’ll fight them too, » Rei assured him as she drew her bow and strung it, nocking an arrow, « Let’s get to the Palace. Maybe there I can find something that makes sense of all this. »

        « Right behind you, » Davis-san said.

        Makoto walked after Ami back to their cramped quarters. I feel like I’ve been hit in the face with a board, Makoto thought as she looked over at Ami’s stricken expression, It was worse for her I bet. I still had my `hobby` of baking and flower arranging. She hasn’t touched a patient in her memory.

        They entered the room and Ami walked straight to her bunk and sat down. Makoto sat next to her. Ami stared at the floor, her hands in her lap.

        Makoto bowed her head. There has to be something, anything to say, Makoto thought, then looked over at Ami for some clue.

        The single tear running down the other girl’s face told her what to do. Makoto sat up and gathered the smaller girl into her arms. Ami didn’t make a sound, but Makoto felt the girl shaking.

        We have to change things, Makoto thought, I can’t imagine that we’d be stripped of our dreams like that. It just doesn’t make any sense. It isn’t a faceless corporation with it’s own goals, it’s supposed to be our friends.

        Makoto stroked Ami’s back and let the girl cry. I thought I had some problems, she thought, But I fought for mine, she couldn’t. We will have see about that!

        The blade was long, not as tall and the wielder, but the trefoils on the forward swept handguard drew Rei’s eyes. « What are those things? » Rei whispered at the snake with arms and legs that writhed soundlessly on the ground.

        « That guy we met in the graveyard. That’s what they really look like, » Davis-san said.

        « Do they normally keep moving after you cut their heads off? » she asked quietly.

        He covered her mouth and nodded. He pointed to his ears and shook his head.

        They have good hearing, she thought, and as he pointed to his nose, And can track us by smell. Wonderful. She reached for an ofuda, only to have him catch her hand and shake his head again. Okay, that isn’t needed, she thought as she raised the bow.

        The two advanced, from pillar to marble pillar. The floors are veined with gold, the wall hangings at the palace can’t be like this, she thought as she looked around for enemies, Maybe the Louvre in Paris has this much art, but not the Imperial Palace. They passed a fountain, the dark liquid bubbling through it wasn’t water. She carefully tasted it. She grimaced at the overly sweet liquid. Cola, one of those American brands. Figures.

        One of the snake-men stepped into view. Rei simply let fly. The arrow buried in its chest, the creature slammed into the wall and it fell writhing silently. Jeff dragged the body off between two of the pillars and let it fall. Rei looked at the long drop, as the body dropped, bouncing off the stone base of the Palace. This isn’t Osaka castle, she thought, I guess people expect it to be.

        She looked up and Davis seemed to be trying to punch her. She froze for a moment, then saw the wire he’d caught with his hands. A garrot, she thought as she looked up and the figure partially wrapped around a ceiling pillar, With Davis-san’s fist on my chin, it can’t tighten. Until it cuts through his hand. Her bow was still in her hands.

        « Cease human! » the creature hissed as it shook her.

        Rei looked at the malevolent expression on Davis-san’s face, as he spoke to the creature. The language sounded like two spitting cats getting ready to fight. Despite their polite tone, Rei thought as she considered getting a hand under the wire herself, I think this is not a polite confrontation. The only word I could make out from their hissing was ‘Davis’ and ‘Yig’. She jabbed back suddenly, with the end of the bow and ducked out of the wire. The creature had landed on the floor and was holding out a hand. « What did you do? »

        « It thinks Tsathoggua is going to save it from Yig’s retribution, » Davis-san said as he raised, not his sword, but his hand.

        « And Tsath – can’t? »

        « Tsathoggua can’t, and I am Yig’s retribution, » he said as he dropped his hand. The creature literally fell dead.

        « Nasty, » Rei commented as she massaged her throat.

        « Very, » Davis-san agreed, « Considering all I did was glower and make a gesture. Something else had him terrified before we ever got here. »

        « Is that what you two were discussing? » Rei asked as she prodded the corpse with the tip of her bow, « How it wasn’t impressed by you? »

        « I didn’t think you understood the language. »

        « I understand when two people are politely tossing the worst insults they can think of, » Rei countered, « I’ve seen that before. »

        « That was the clue, » Davis-san said as he touched her throat, and the pain and stiffness disappeared, « It was unimpressed by my illusions and specters. »

        « Since you hadn’t sent any, you didn’t tell it that. You just told it what would frighten it worse. »

        « You’re catching on, » Davis-san said.

        « Then let me show you how much I’ve caught on, » Rei said sternly as she caught his arm, « Give me the Henshin pen, and if those books pertain to Sailor Mars, I want them too. »

        « What makes –  »

        « Don’t treat me as an imbecile! You’ve had me on the defensive because you knew more than I did. But you don’t know Japanese culture as well as you think. I recognized many of the things lying dead out there. But one was missing, the Sailor Scouts. »

        « Senshi. »

        « Whatever! » she shouted, « You and half the people we’ve met have thought my distaste with Sailor Mars was hilarious. You wouldn’t have taken an ordinary miko or even a full priest on this insane journey. »

        « But I would have taken a Sailor Senshi? » Davis-san asked, « I wanted to know why you hated Sailor Mars so much. Sailor Moon resented the loss of the easy life she had and all the hard responsibilities thrust upon her. Demands she neither wanted nor was prepared to live up to, but your hatred was more visceral. You hated Sailor Mars because she disappointed you, because you disappointed yourself. »

        The arguments struck home like an arrow from her bow, but none lessened her determination. « All that’s fine, and all that’s true. But hand over that Henshin. It is mine, not yours. The responsibility is mine, not yours. »

        He pulled out the box, opening it to reveal the Henshin pen. « There is one last statement to the incantation that restores this, and ‘please’ is not the magic word this time. »

        Rei shuddered at the runes that swirled around it, what it represented. This one is different. This one was altered by the gods. Made for me. She steeled her resolved and stared into his eyes. « The choice, is mine, not yours. I choose to be Sailor Mars. Not for the Princess. Not because the gods command it. But because I choose to accept the responsibility. »

        He handed over the box. She spilled the Henshin into her hand. It feels like it’s part of me already, she thought as she stared at the item. She pulled the magatama out of her shirt and held in next to the Henshin rod. She watched the jewel and rod pulse in time with her own heart beat. « These are mine, and whatever demands are made of me, I will meet them. » She looked up and smiled at his smile. « The first is not to make the stupid mistakes Mars made in the past. How do I activate it? » she asked.

        He passed over a thick gray book, thumbed open the smaller yellow one and passed it over. « There are multiple power settings. Considering what we’ll be facing. I’d recommend, ‘Soldier of War, Eternal Cosmo-Defender Mars Power Make-Up’. » He showed her the relevant page. « I’d also suggest you concentrate on using the bow and arrows, unless you are sure something need the heavy artillery. If you kill me by accident, I’ll make you dream of eating canned asparagus until you burst. »

        « Somehow I doubt you’re lying. » Rei turned over the yellow book to look at the cover.  » ‘Being Sailor Mars for Dummies’?! »

        « Hey, they’re your gods, not mine. »

        « The high heels and short skirt make no sense, » Sailor Mars complained as she tried to tug the skirt down, again.

        « Shows off your legs, » Davis-san replied, although he hadn’t looked at her legs once, « I personally think Serenity was a bit of a voyeur. She liked looking at her pretty soldiers’ bodies. »

        Sailor Mars sighed in frustration. « Where are we going? »

        « I was hoping to hunt down the last of the invaders, but I guess we already did that, » he replied, « I just had to make sure. The last thing I’d want to do is open the treasure vault, and have them jump us. »

        « Treasure Vault? » Sailor Mars asked, « Is that what they were after? »

        « Metaphorically speaking. Okay, you know the way, so you lead. I’ll watch our backs. » He stepped behind her.

        « Why don’t you just get it over with and flip my skirt up? » she said angrily as she pulled the magatama and held it out before her.

        « I’ve seen panties before, » he replied, « You do realize we’re just walking down the main corridor. »

        « It’s what makes sense, » Sailor Mars snapped back, « It’s not my fault they were stupid. »

        « I think that transformation is messing with your head, » Davis-san said.

        « What’s that supposed to mean?! » Sailor Mars whirled around to confront him.

        « I mean compared to how you were active before –  » He pushed the arrow out of his face. « You are much more short-tempered and violent. The only change is the transformation. So the transformation is cause, or the catalyst. »

        « Are you suggesting I become just a girl? » Sailor Mars asked angrily.

        « I think you will find Hino Rei is worth more than a hundred Sailor Senshi, » he said, « Since you have no need of me. I’ll take my leave. » He vanished.

        « Who needs you?! » Sailor Mars shouted at the departed man.

        « When you do, I’ll be at the end of the corridor, » his voice taunted from the far end of the corridor.

        Sailor Mars felt her anger rise, and she charged down the corridor. Only to stop after a few steps. He isn’t down there, Sailor Mars thought, He’s hiding in the shadows, behind a tapestry, or hanging from the ceiling! She scanned all those places, and more, for her adversary. That she couldn’t find him didn’t reduce her resolve. « I’m unimpressed – »

        « – by my illusions and specters! » his irritating voice called back, « I seem to have heard that somewhere before. And it’s equally true I’ve had nothing to do with what you’re seeing and feeling. »

        « I’ll, » Sailor Mars shouted as she charged, and again fear gripped her within a few steps. « I’m not alone! » Sailor Mars shouted at the walls and shadows around her, « My grandfather loves me! » he has to, even though I’ve been bad. I only disobeyed him because I knew he would have expected me to act. « I’m not afraid of you! » Sailor Mars shouted as she spun around, looking for her foe, « I’m not afraid of anything! »

        « I don’t think that’s true, » he told her as he stepped out into view.

        « You can’t frighten me, all you talk and you’re as lost as me! You’ve been laughing at me the whole time! Do you think an arrow in you would be funny? »

        « I think it would be a scream, » he replied, « I also don’t think you’re in your right mind. Why use the bow when you have all those magical attacks? »

        « You can’t trick me! You’re a wizard, if I used magic on you, you’d just magic it away. You can’t magic this away, » Sailor Mars shouted as she aimed at his black heart. « You can’t fool me with those other sounds and tricks. You’re right there, and I can hit you. »

        « It seems I was wrong. Hino Rei was the better choice for this job. »

        « Shut up! »

        « Or what? You’ll shoot me? You’re going to do that anyway. Haven’t you wondered why all those things died? Haven’t you wondered how I was able to talk that Serpent Man into dying? »

        « You trick everybody, » Sailor Mars replied, « No more. » She released the arrow and he didn’t even try to dodge. The instant of exultation at destroying her rival vanished as she realized he’d done nothing to deserve her suspicion, or her attack. « No! » she wailed as she dropped the bow and ran towards Davis-san as he fell, her arrow protruding from his chest.

        Rei felt the transformation fade as she ran. He’s tough, maybe I didn’t kill him! Right, a bow from the gods and him standing there! she berated herself, What came over me? I took his other teasing in stride, but Sailor Mars took everything so personally! What did that transformation do to me?

        He lay where the force of the impact had thrown him. There’s no blood here, so no huge bloodstain doesn’t mean he lived through it. She checked his pulse. He’s still alive?! That’s impossible, but I know the symptoms of shock, and he’s got all of them. « Are you alive? » she asked timidly.

        « I don’t keep my organs in the `right` places, » he whispered, « Please forgive my assumption. »

        « Forgive you?! » Don’t argue, he’s confused. « Of course, I forgive you. »

        « I thought Sailor Mars would be more resistant, not less, to the magic of this place. I was wrong. Your torment was my fault. »

        « Don’t try to talk, » she told him as she blushed, remembering the first rule of shock ‘keep the patient warm’. At the moment, there’s only one source of warmth available.

        « That jewel you were giving, try that, » Davis-san suggested

        « What? » Rei nearly jumped at the suggestion.

        « I can’t imagine they made its operation too difficult. »

        « I’m sure, but I, how did you know what I was thinking? » she asked.

        « When you started blushing enough to set the place afire and playing with the button on your uniform, » he said, « It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what you were thinking. »

        I’m probably blushing so hard now I should burst into flame, she thought as she pulled the glowing jewel out and held it in her hand, So how would this work? Just touch him and concentrate? She slipped her hand under his shirt collar behind his neck, then under his T-shirt. She encountered another ridge she briefly thought was a seam. He’s wearing two under shirts? No, that’s a scar, and a big one, she realized, Think about that later. Concentrate on warmth, and healing. She felt the jewel pulse warmly, and the clamminess of his skin diminish. After several minutes, he sat up. « I apologize for my unforgivable actions, » she said and bowed, touching her forehead to the floor, « Any punishment you demand in recompense . . .  »

        « Don’t let Sailor Mars kill you again, » he said, « And like I told you, Great Old Ones don’t stay dead. So getting shot is more like a slap in the face. I probably would have recovered faster if you had killed me. » He pulled Rei up to a seated posture.

        « I don’t understand. ‘Don’t let Sailor Mars kill you’? What do you mean? »

        « My friends and I trained the Senshi in tactics and combat awareness. What we didn’t realize was we were only teaching their civilian identities. When the Senshi abandoned all thought of using their civilian identities for anything except a disguise to blend in, those civilian identities and all they learned, hoped for, and felt for anyone outside that sorority effectively died. Rather like a cheap suit of clothes to put on when they didn’t want to be bothered. All that training was completely forgotten when they prepared to fight against Beryl. They had three dragons, a dozen highly skilled martial artists, two Great Old Ones: Asuka and myself, two or three of the three deities who created this universe and three stellar battleships. With that kind of help instantly available, how much of it would you call on? »

        « All of it. »

        « The Senshi called on none of it. And when Sailor Moon fell after killing Beryl, her last wish was for them to live and continue their lives. With the Senshi portion of her dead, she wanted her friends to go on living. She didn’t understand that the Senshi would rather die than live without her. »

        « You were in love with Sailor Jupiter, » Rei realized, when he stared at her she added, « I remember seeing the news reports about ‘Jupiter’s Knight. » She smiled. « To tell you the truth, I was jealous of Sailor Jupiter. You seemed so devoted to her, and yet so utterly out of control. »

        « Ah yes, she was going to civilize me by the power of true love, » he said as he sat up.

        Rei blushed more at that.

        « I appreciate your willingness to risk a stain on your honor on my behalf. »

        Rei took a moment to think about what he’d said and blushed when she realized it meant.

        « Now let’s deal with the source of all of this. It’s time we got some answers. »

        « You seem to know all the answers, » Rei complained as she offered her hand to help him up. He stood up on his own, but accepted her hand to steady him.

        « I know many of the answers, » Davis-san said, « Most of the time I use a combination of well-honed common sense and a careful study of past and existing patterns. So I don’t have to know dropping the hammer on my left foot will hurt, since it hurt dropping it on everyone else’s right foot. »

        « I was wrong, you are ahead of most people, » Rei said, « What do you expect to find? »

        « Something different that what you see, because you’re a girl, you’re a native Japanese, and from a different generation. No insult implied, it is the nature of the defense. »

        « I have to apologize again for shooting you. I just got . . .  » she sighed and bowed her head before continuing, « I got so angry. Such a lack of control is unforgivable. »

        « As I said, it was not entirely your fault. Part of this place is the people’s assumptions. When you became Sailor Mars, you became vulnerable to those assumptions, Hino Rei’s most of all. You still think of Sailor Mars as an arrogant hothead, who’s ready to fight ally or enemy at the drop of a hat. Something is making you think of Sailor Mars as a separate person. The rest of the Senshi suffered from that, and that let the Senshi treat their civilian identities as if they were bolted on, not part of them. »

        « So I should stay Hino Rei, because she’s human, not and Senshi, and not what you are? » Rei asked.

        « That would seem reasonable – what? »

        Rei had frozen and turned to face the wall. « Don’t you see it? Something moving in the shadows. »

        « You have a means to eliminate the shadows, » Jeff reminded her.

        « You have a lot of faith in this toy they gave me, » Rei said as she fished out the necklace.

        « What’s the point of being a god if you can’t give some mortal a trinket, and let them figure out all the new ways to use it? » he asked and smirked at her.

        « You don’t have much respect for the gods, » she muttered.

        « I have a better grasp of how they act, and why, » he explained, « I could simply find the reality thread of this place and clip out the time of the attack and graft it back together. But two things would happen, first, I’d probably be facing several dozen of my compatriots, all ready to kill me, and second the attacks would be restaged somewhere else, with me no wiser as to why they had happened in the first place. Data for planning and decision making is as important as the victory itself. If you know why, you can be ready for them next time. By laying a trap, or attacking them. »

        « Something the Senshi only did the last time. » Rei kept looking around, willing the light to be brighter. « I would have thought the throne room would be more open and airy. This is like a tomb, or the depths of a fortress. »

        « Who knows what it looked like before the attacks? » he said as he examined the door that blocked their way, « This is the last barrier, and someone gave it a good going over. I’m willing to bet it wasn’t our old friends. »

        « What do we do? » Rei asked,  » ‘Say Friend and enter’, extol the virtues of the Emperor – Banzai!? »

        « Did you ever hear of Aladdin? » Davis-san asked, « Damp the light down and cover your ears. »

        « What are you going to do? »

        « A childlike response, with the might of a minor Great Old One behind it. » He waited until she had her fingers in her ears and was humming loud before exclaiming, « OPEN SESAME! »

        I felt that through my bones, she thought as the door swung open, I can’t imagine any door standing up to that! She reached up and closed her own mouth as they walked in. I thought a throne room should be light and airy. This qualifies, she thought as the sound of melodic bird songs soothed her psyche, and a gentle breeze seemed to carry away all her suspicions and doubts. Peace and harmony, she thought as she took Jeffrey’s hand, I understand his connections to humans and the world. It’s all so clear. She smiled as she saw the regal figure seated on the low throne. The Queen’s legs folded under the throne so she approximated the typical seated posture. She smirked again as she bowed, and Jeffrey pulled his hand free of hers. Now, he just must do something totally American, she thought as he set his had forward on his head and marched towards the throne, It’s not malice or disrespect, it’s just his nature.

        « With all due respect, Your highness, » he said politely, but offered no bow, « Quit screwing with our head, and I’ll quit considering unscrewing yours. »

        The queen smiled indulgently and waved Rei forward. Rei eagerly took up a position alongside Jeffrey She glanced and Jeffrey and shook her head. I hope her majesty understands, he means no harm. She gave him an unobtrusive elbow in the ribs.

        He turned and frowned at her, but changed his tone. « We aren’t your attackers. We were sent by her bosses, and while you nearly had Sailor Mars kill me, I’ve no hard feelings, but if you have her blissed out of her mind on royal awe, we can’t help you. »

        A faint frown line appeared on the queen’s brow. « What about you my dear? » she asked, sounding more like an indulgent grandmother than the Empress of All Japan.

        « Your Imperial Highness, he means well, » Rei tried to intercede, « He’s just . . .  »

        Jeffrey began pulling something from his coat. « We don’t have time for these games, » he said as he stepped onto the dias and confronted the Empress directly.

        Rei was ready to leap on his back and pull him away, before he completed his plan. Then, like a balloon popping, she saw what was there. The damage to the room, the fallen servitors, and even the small cages of the songbirds, their tiny , jewel-like bodies crushed within them. Jeffrey was gently wrapping a light beige blanket clearly marked ‘U.S. NAVY’ around the ancient and feeble woman.

        She looks like the queen I first saw would look, Rei thought , Well into her second century.

        « Rei, pull down some of those wall hangings. We need to make her Highness comfortable, » Jeffrey’s sharp order broke her out of her spell.

        Rei rushed to fulfill the task. She heard her Imperial Majesty joker, « Oh, now I am to be pampered, young man? »

        « I’ve won, ‘Always be magnanimous in victory’, » Jeffrey replied. He carefully pulled the throne up and gingerly carried it down the dias, striving not to jostle the ancient figure.

        « No respect for the Imperial Personage, » she teased Jeffrey, and as Rei pulled down tapestries, she added, « Or the Imperial Throne Room. »

        Rei felt herself blushing in shame at that.

        « None, » Jeffrey said firmly, « Just solicitude to a brave, old woman in pain. »

        She helped Jeffrey wrap her Imperial Majesty in another layer, and fashioned a pillow for her head as they tipped the throne down.

        « If only you two had been here when the Shining Ones came, » the ancient woman said quietly, « We may have had a chance. » She gripped Rei’s arm, despite her feeble appearance, she had some strength left. « They came, and we fought, while others got the dreams away. All of them. They smashed every beautiful thing they could find. But children dream of beauty all the time, » she added wistfully, « In time, all would have been restored. Then the others came, scavengers, but worse than the Shining Ones. They loosed the nightmares, all of them, the worst first. Why would they do that? »

        « To threaten the people of Japan, » Jeffrey said as he considered,  » ‘The Shining Ones’. They claimed they were doing it for the best? »

         » ‘The Stars are Right, all Humanity must be immured!' » her Imperial Highness said disdainfully, « As if their plan would make things better instead of worse. »

        Rei watched as age and the struggle seemed to catch up with Her Imperial Highness. « Are you – Pimiko? Forgive me, but you look like I always imagined her. »

        « Who I really am, even I have forgotten. But you have your answer inside your own question. » She smiled indulgently at Rei.

        « You’ve become Queen Pimiko, because that is who would have to rule here, » Rei realized and was warmed by the Empress’s smile at her cleverness.

        « I can take care of the nightmares, » Jeffrey said, « Have no fears on that score. I already know what they’ve become. »

        The Empress chuckled, « I lost all fears on that score, when you marched in here. You managed to inspire pity in me, for all those who came here to ravage. I would not be them for all the worlds. »

        « But the dreams? » Rei gasped.

        « Yes, the dreams, » the Empress seemed to be fading, losing her strength as she lost her substance.

        « I can keep them safe, I know someone who could be Queen here. Who knows something of fighting, and would have friends to help. »

        The Empress’s gaze turned on Rei. Rei stood her ground. « You would do this? »

        « I would, » Rei vowed, as she pulled the magatama from her shirt and held the glowing jewel before the Empress. « By all the gods and before them, I vow I will keep them safe, and find one to take your place here. »

        « Not a vow to take lightly, » the ancient woman warned, « And not taken alone. »

        « I’m sure she’ll agree, and if not, I’ll do the job myself. Besides, it will save her from a bad fate as well. »

        The Empress reached up, closing her hand over Rei’s, so their clenched fists enclosed the jewel. The brilliant and blinding light illuminated them all. When the light faded, the Empress was gone.

        Rei opened her fist and looked at the second magatama, this one black but shot through with streaks of blue and gold and silver. « Like a black opal, » Rei said.

        « Usagi may say ‘no’, » Jeffrey warned her.

        Rei looked at him and smiled. « You knew her, you can just tell me the words to use, so she’ll trample me in her eagerness to do the job, » Rei said, « She’ll have her choice, it will just seem madness not to say ‘yes’. » Rei looked around and shivered. « This place needs to die again, so it can be reborn, » she smiled at him, « At least our religions agree on that. »

        Jeffrey smiled as they walked out. « Let’s see, first there’s the ice cream, » he suggested.

        « Ice cream? » Rei asked, « How old is this girl Usagi? »

        « Then there are all the cute stuffed animals, » Jeffrey said.

        « So, we’re dealing with a five-year-old, » Rei said and bowed her head in despair.

        « Not when you factor in Tuxedo Mask, and some of the things I heard discussed about him. »

        « So she’s a pervert too, » Rei said, « Maybe I should do the job myself. »

        « Then there’s the giant, furry, flame-throwing squid, but it is housebroken. »

        « You’re making the last part up! » Rei shouted at him.

        « How sure are you of that? » Jeffrey asked, « Just because you never saw it on television, doesn’t mean anything. »

        Rei sighed. « Can we go home now? »

        « I’ll trample anything that gets in our way, » Jeffrey promised, « Of course I’ll blame you, but that’s to be expected. ‘Women drivers’. »

        « RAAAARRAAR!! » Rei shouted as she chased him through the passages.

        The sirens fell silent, letting the troops hear more clearly. Asuka moved from the shelter where the Tomoe and Mizuno families had been concealed. My station is another shelter, where we’ll draw in the enemy, Asuka thought as she ran, Give them an apparent target, while the real target appears only lightly guarded. Unless the three guest Senshi are the real target. But then we’d have to know which of the Senshi we were dealing with, since only three are coming in.

        Asuka arrived at her post and noted neither of the Kunos had made an appearance. Where are they? For that matter where is Hotaru? I know she’s with Sasami and Ryo-Oh-Ki, but we could use all three of them right now. So again I’m on my own.

        Asuka watched the Commodore coordinating the defense from the command bunker. While the plasma rifles and crew-served version of the weapon were passed out. Sandbags and poured concrete won’t stop Senshi, just adds to the shrapnel, she thought, And despite the extravagant claims, those plasma rifles don’t have any more effect on magical beasties than regular rifles.

        Asuka was only slightly interested in the battle that was coming. I held off three of them myself, she thought as she examined her hands.

        « You with us for this? » Imai asked as she directed soldiers to emplace an antitank rocket.

        « Thinking about fear, and the stupid things it makes you do. Afraid to be seen as a coward, so you charge into battle. Afraid of losing your status as the best, so you beat down those you should be raising up. Afraid of growing up, for fear of growing old. Afraid of making friends, for fear of losing them, or worse, revealing things to an enemy, » Asuka said wistfully.

        Imai stared into the darkness at what she thought Asuka might be staring at. « I hadn’t considered that, » the woman said, « So they’re attacking us, not out of strength, but because they’re afraid? »

        « What? » Asuka asked, startled out of her wool-gathering.

        « Those Senshi, they attack, because they’re afraid of us. It makes sense, » Imai said and nodded, « Taught ‘always respect your elders’. Suddenly, there are no elders and you have to make all the decisions. Then an elder shows up and you don’t want to give it all up. Makes sense. Thanks. »

        Asuka stared after the woman. What was she talking about? Asuka thought, I was talking about myself. She saw the three figures landing in the spotlights that scanned the perimeter, and still didn’t know which group they were from. Does the Senshi transformation eliminate all external wounds? Asuka wondered, Makoto and company really gave the Tokyo Outers a pasting. These look unaffected. No, that’s Setsuna as GrandMaster Saturn in the middle, it’s the northern group, Asuka thought happily, then frowned, Three, there was a time I couldn’t have matched even one.

        « We demand the return of those you stole from us, and the surrender of those who led the attack on our people, » GrandMaster Saturn’s voice thundered across the camp.

        We guessed wrong, Asuka thought, They aren’t after our expected targets. Good news is the civilians are in Tokyo, under guard. Bad news is, they sweep up the rest with one move.

        « With respect, I cannot accede to your request, I do not have the authority, » the Commodore’s voice came through the camp’s loudspeakers, making him anonymous as well as neutralizing the fear of GrandMaster Saturn’s trick.

        « It was not a request, » the GrandMaster replied angrily.

        « Even if it was in my authority, » the Commodore continued as if she hadn’t spoken, « I would never agree to letting you keep your hostages. You may submit a formal protest to my superiors, and I’ll even offer communications to allow you to protest to them directly. »

        « We did not come to play diplomatic games, or to request anything. You will submit, » GrandMaster Saturn told them.

        The Commodore let the silence drag, as if what she had said was too ridiculous to reply to. The GrandMaster’s cheeks colored.

        She knows she’s being insulted, and she’s embarrassed by it, Asuka thought as she watched the others also fail to hide their tempers, Haruka ready to start a fight, Michiru with her nose in the air as if sniffing something foul. Sorry, I know high-schoolers think they know everything, and adults are stupid, but these adults are clever and know how to manipulate you.

        « Who do you think you’re playing with? » Uranus shouted at them, « World Shaking! »

        The soldiers took aim, but discipline held, they had no orders to fire. Asuka had the same orders, but no orders not to otherwise act. The blast hit her first AT field, and shattered it, then the second, and broke through it, and the third, which fluctuated and failed, and stopped at the fourth. That hurt, Asuka thought as she staggered under the multiple impacts, and prepared to do it again, And all you saw was your attack failing. Too bad.

        « You might be able to stop one attack, » GrandMaster Saturn said with a cruel smile, « But what about three? »

        Asuka sighed. I know we discussed this, Asuka thought as she raised her hands, That doesn’t mean I have to like it. Although I have a few subtle changes of my own to add. It’s time I quit running away from what I’ve become, and start using it to protect humanity. « How about you take me, and forget about the others, » Asuka called out as she walked forward, her hands raised, « After all Setsuna. » She smirked at the woman acting as if she’d been thrown in ice-cold horse manure. « None of them saw your humiliation, several times. »

        « Do you really believe we have to settle for just you? » GrandMaster Saturn asked, « We could come back later, and finish with them. »

        « You’re a lousy negotiator. I offer a compromise, and you tell me you can’t be trusted to keep your word. Why don’t I simply kill you three now, and let the U.S. Navy bombard your precious city? New Jersey, Wisconsin and Iowa, that’s 27 406 mm naval rifles, each firing a one-ton shell every two minutes and dozens of faster firing 127 mm guns. Can you stop all that? Did you know the Americans developed a nuclear-tipped anti-aircraft missile? I can just see you all trying to stop a massed missile barrage, never noticing some of the missiles getting close to you, until it’s too late. » Asuka saw Uranus and Neptune paling at the thought, while Saturn remained outwardly stern and calm. « You aren’t the strong ones, little girls. You are the ones being tolerated. You are the ones that the adults are trying to deal with gently. Selfish teenagers who never listened to the word ‘no’, until reality hit them in the face. And reality is coming up fast. Those monsters you were so helpless against. » She gestured at the troops. « They were trained and equipped to deal with monsters like that. Are you really foolish enough to believe you actually have the upper hand? You are being tolerated, ladies, because you haven’t become a threat, yet. Now, you’re getting the best deal you’re going to get. Take it or leave it. »

        « We’ll take it, » Neptune said, « We can negotiate later. »

        Neither Saturn nor Uranus seemed happy with the arrangement, but they acquiesced.

        « Come, » Saturn offered her hand.

        Asuka walked over to Haruka. « I remember what a butterfingers you are. I’d rather trust one of them. Less chance of ‘accidents’. »

        Setsuna drew herself up regally, and Asuka gave her a bored look. Sorry, I’ve seen too many people who parcel out information, to gain advantage, and they often don’t know as much as they think they do, Asuka thought, Arrogance and stupidity are too often comfortable bedfellows. Boy do I know that is the truth! Without the lessons from my fellow pilots, I might be you when I got to your age. Misato still is, so are you a drunk or an addict? That would be useful to find out, and the Commodore is right, I’ll be ideally suited to find out.

        Haruka grabbed Asuka’s wrists and raced into the sky. Moments later Michiru and Setsuna followed them into the air. Riding the back or front is more aerodynamically sensible, as well as less tiring on your arms, Asuka thought as they raced through the night, Oh, I’m sorry, am I supposed to be screaming in fear? I guess I was so bored, I forgot.

Sailor Jupiter II 7 – And Even the Jordan River Has Bodies Floatin’

        They arrived back at the fireside. Rei looked at the body lying on the ground, the body that had been hers. What, am I afraid of, I won’t fit? In my own skin? Have I changed so much that I even fear that my normal life won’t be enough to contain the soul and experiences I’ve had so far? She stood there, staring down at the body and considering. As ridiculous as it sounds, that’s exactly what I’m afraid of.

        She stepped into her body and found it still fit perfectly. As she opened her eyes, she felt herself being lowered gently onto her side. She tried to protest, and couldn’t make a noise, she tried to move, and could make only the feeblest attempts.

        « Be at ease Hino-san, » a man she didn’t recognize told her, while a lovely young woman was helping Davis-san to his feet. He thanked her.

        « Keiko-san, » Rei croaked as her voice returned, « You look like you had fun. » Rei looked from the officer breathing heavily and clenching and unclenching her fists, to the punks scattered around them, none moving beyond breathing, and doing that very gingerly.

        Keiko-san blushed, then smiled and stretched. « I guess I did, but the doc did more than I did. I never could have imagined he could be so violent. »

        « You needed protection, » the doc countered dryly, and nodded to the newcomers, « Tatewaki and Kodachi Kuno, currently of the Special Defense Forces. »

        Before Rei could laugh or shriek in horror at encountering the terrors from Nerima, she felt a cold darkness clamp down on her heart and soul. She looked at the hooded figure who’d appeared and seemed the source and center of it. I just want to crawl in a hole and die, she thought as she glanced at the others, who were as subdued by fear as she was.

        Davis-san was no longer a human, but a large dragon. He made a curt gesture that was typical of him and it was as if his move had cut the string of fear binding them all.

        Okay, now I don’t feel so bad anymore, she thought as she sat up and the dragon carefully placed himself between the cloaked figure and the humans.

        « Lord Yig, » the dragon said and made a respectful bow, « How may we be of service? »

        With the paranormal aura cut off, Rei thought, I can see that cloaked . . . man, I guess, is shaking with rage.

        « It is not over, » the cloaked intoned, sending tremors of fear through all of them. « You must bring that-which-dreams to safe harbor. »

        No price or rewards are mentioned, Rei thought as without a word of warning, Davis-dragon gathered them all up, placed them on his back, and took to the sky. What of those punks? Rei wondered idly. Within moments, the sky they flew through subtly changed. The darkness of night gave way to a broad expanse of clouds. Rei reached out with the senses she’d honed in pathfinding. « This place is ancient! » she exclaimed.

        « The dream of Greater Yamato, of Hakko Ichiu, Japan Triumphant over all, » the dragon said, his own rage tainting every word, « A good place to flee when facing an invincible, implacable enemy. »

        How does he know so much from what little was said? Rei didn’t have time to ask, And why is he so angry about it?

        « Then we shall destroy them, » Tatewaki said, waving his blade.

        « I’m glad you feel that way, » the dragon rumbled, as he descended to the heavily forested hills, « Because I have little power here. »

        « How can that be possible? » Kodachi asked.

        « This is Japan Uber Alles, I am an American. My powers are limited. »

        « But you are carrying all of us, » Rei countered, seeing the obvious hole in his logic.

        « I serve, so I have the power to do so, but I can neither lead nor attack. That is denied me. »

        « So what are we to do? » the doctor asked, then he spotted the chase through a break in the forest canopy, spots of color against the background of snow and evergreens, « Against those wolves and big cats? They aren’t native to Japan. »

        « They have taken those forms falsely, » the dragon growled as he flew over the fleeing samurai, the barely controlled rage in his voice frightened all of them. The armor-clad man below turned briefly, to slice a wolf in half with a mighty slash from his nodachi.

        The dragon collected the man in his claws and raced over the trees. None of the riders could see the man to know whether he battled the dragon, or accepted he’d been rescued. As they watched, the two halves of the wolf twisted and reshaped themselves as two complete wolves.

        « There, » Tatewaki pointed to an area of high rocky ground, with a clear, up-sloping killing ground all around it.

        The dragon dove, and released the samurai, who immediately took off running. While he hovered over the snow, Davis-dragon handed Keiko a staff, and the doctor a pistol with a drum magazine and a shoulder stock.

        « I should follow him, » Rei said as she slid off the dragon’s back and checked her bow and quiver of arrows.

        « Yes, » the dragon said, before launching himself into the sky to disappear in the gloom.

        Following the man’s trail is easy, Rei thought as she moved through the path he’d forced through the snow, At this speed, I should catch him easily. The problem is, those things would have to be blind not to see and use the same trail, and what made Kuno, and the dragon, think those things wouldn’t simply circle around? And what will I do if those monsters do circle around, or just get past the others? I’ve never felt such anger from Jeff, he doesn’t seem the type to fly off the handle like that, yet he was shivering with rage. Even shooting him didn’t make him that mad. She looked down at the bow and quiver, and knew she had at least the answer to one question. They are for killing monsters.

        The doctor glanced at the markings on the pistol. I know when he handed it to me, it was a modified .45 Government. So why are all the markings now in Japanese kanji characters? he silently asked as he fitted the shoulder stock and drum magazine, This thing is like an old broom-handled Mauser. He heard the baying wolves and growling cats before he saw them. I’m glad I don’t have that Hippocratic Oath nonsense to live up to. I can defend myself and others if I wish.

        They formed a rough semi-circle. Keiko and Kodachi at the center, Tatewaki and himself forward on the flanks. He got the butt tight in his shoulder, sighted down the barrel, and waited for the first target to appear. Once they’d stopped moving, silence descended. Eerie, but it will give us the warning we need.

        This is like the old days, while I was still a priest, before I joined the Self-Defense Forces. I wonder what my old abbot would think of me now? he thought with a touch of nostalgia as he fired on the first animal that broke through the treeline. Almost no recoil! Makes it easier to hit the next target, he thought as the creature went rolling back from the impact. He took advantage and fired at the next, and the next, one got past, he got the next, and two came through, but he picked them off. He returned to thinning the herd as they came through the trees. Do what you can, he reminded himself, Not what others can. He heard the Kunos and Keiko moving, the sound of steel on bone, some sharp, some blunt. All the time he moved to the colorful spots highlighted against the snow or dark woods, firing, then moving on. Mechanical, and without emotion, he was serving the gun.

        Then the slide came back and remained there. He thumbed the slide release, took aim, pulled the trigger, and nothing happened. « That couldn’t be fifty shots! » he exclaimed as he looked around in amazement at the tiny bits of brass all around his feet. The ground was littered with furry bodies. At least these aren’t reforming to attack again, he thought of his exhausted and bloody companions.

        « It was, » Tatewaki answered him, his normally indomitable spirit damped by the killing he’d just done.

        « Come on, » Keiko urged between gasps, « We didn’t get them all, some got away! »

        He looked at the wide path beaten in the snow, spatters of blood here and there as the merely wounded left their dead behind.

        « Rei can’t stop them all! » Keiko urged again before she jogged in pursuit. The men took off running after her, in the path trampled in the snow.

        « What are we going to do, when we find her? » Kodachi asked as she leapt from tree limb to tree limb, keeping a watchful eye out for their targets.

        The blow sent Asuka sprawling across the floor of the Crystal Palace. The long bone in her left arm was broken, but Asuka forced herself to grin instead of scream, before she regained her footing. The bone is grinding against itself, that’s not good, she thought as she ignored the pain of the injury, and launched her counterattack, Idiots think I can be put down so easily?

        She looked at NeoSerenity, curled up in her chair like a frightened little child, not like a queen on her throne. Some of the court surrounded their Queen, and made soothing noises. A flock of cooing doves, Asuka thought, While I put the hawks to the test.

        « Was the tale too real? The words too graphic? » Asuka asked as she wiped the blood from her mouth with her right hand, courtesy of the split lip received from `gentle` Neptune, « It happened. Triton was a betrayal, as will – »

        « Silence! » Haruka shouted as she landed another blow that sent Asuka sprawling.

        Asuka had felt the bones in her right forearm begin to crack as she’d absorbed the blow there, rather than on her other wounded arm. But I keep getting up, she thought as she did just that, Soon you’ll draw your sword on a helpless foe, and then I’ll have my answers.

        « You will not trouble NeoSerenity further with such lies! » Princess Neptune told her haughtily as she stood off from Princess Uranus, blocking Asuka’s direct line of sight to NeoSerenity.

        « Since when does the dog, speak for the Master? No words from Saturn, or is it Pluto? No denials of what was done ‘for the greater good’? » Asuka sneered at the eldest Senshi, who stood trembling with rage.

        Haruka advanced with menace. « I said SILEN -! »

        Asuka slapped Haruka before she could punch her again. The Senshi staggered under the force of the blow and fought to remain upright. Asuka fought down a cry and a grimace. The pain means at least one bone’s broken clear through, and the other is right behind it, Asuka thought, Whatever her faults, she knows how to hurt people without killing them.

        Haruka slowly recovered from the force and surprise of the blow.

        « Not used to people being able to fight back? You only get two free shots, the next one, you pay for, » Asuka said threateningly, but did not advance, « I was a real soldier. You just played one for the cameras, and your admirers. » She nodded at Michiru, both girls growled at the insult. « If you can’t take the truth, you have no business in this world. Go home. If words can send you into conniptions, then artillery, poison gas and machine guns will put paid to the lot of you. »

        This also proves that either NeoSerenity in nothing like Usagi, or someone else is running things, Asuka thought as she prepared, Time to find out for certain. I almost hope Raccoon is wrong, but I’m afraid he isn’t. I can feel it even now. She thrust her left arm into her shirt, and ignored the pain just moving it caused. More important, find out, for certain, if I’m as far gone as you are, Raccoon. As I fear I am.

        « I just wanted the court to know the levels to which Serenity would stoop to, or Setsuna’s previous incarnation could stoop to, and that was why no one expects any different from you. Betrayal and murder rain down from the gods floating high above we mere mortals. Like the glittering idiots of Versailles – »

        « You will not defame NeoSerenity like that, » Michiru insisted. Haruka was more blunt, she drew her sword.

        Asuka made no attempt at evasion or defense, holding her free hand at her side. None of the court, and more importantly, none of the Senshi call out a protest, Asuka thought as she braced for the blow, Will they call back the stroke?

        No one commented as the stroke went home, but missed the heart by a wide margin. The satisfaction and delight on Haruka’s face faded, as she realized she’d killed a helpless foe.

        « Idiot, you barely nicked the trachea and missed all the vital organs. Who taught you to use that thing? A drunken monkey?! Any higher and all you would have done is broken my collarbone. That’s why you aim for the vitals, so you actually kill the person you stab. Not make shish-kabobs out of them. »

        Now Venus and Mars hustle a horrified NeoSerenity out of the throne room, Asuka thought with disappointment, Not so fast.

        « Again -? » Asuka asked and coughed out her own blood onto the gleaming white floor, « Not a clean death, a lingering death, » she managed to get out before NeoSerenity left with Venus and Mars close behind.

        So much for reaching out to defeated foes, Asuka thought as she slumped to the floor, in opposition to every instinct to fight until she was destroyed. She looked at the patterns of blood staining the white crystal of the floor, her blood.

        « No mercy, even to the fallen, » Asuka said with a laugh, the coughs wracked her as she nearly choked on her own blood. Her shirt showed the spreading stain.

        Instinct tells me to staunch the flow, but without a healer or surgeon, that would just delay the inevitable. Now I need to watch, and catalog. Ah, I see you now, she thought as her body lost strength and the light faded from her eyes. She saw the Outers drawing close, but cautiously. As if I might have the strength for some further mischief, she thought, If they only knew.

        They watched the girl slump and then Asuka’s body reverted to a fine gray powder, finer than any ash. They drew back as the dust swirled on an unseen wind, and that odd wind slowly carried it all away. Only the bloodied clothes were left behind.

        « Dispose of those immediately, » GrandMaster Saturn commanded the other Outers, « NeoSerenity need not see such a thing. »

        Neither of the other two were anxious to touch the blood they had been eager to spill a few moments earlier.

        Eyes regarded the scrying pool. Eyes which slowly mastered the anger behind them. « Interesting, » the voice growled in the darkness, « The only sorrow was that Langley caught them, not that they committed the act itself. Very well played. Now we know where, and more importantly who to strike. »

        Rei had almost caught up with the samurai as he ran. The sound of the baying, yowling pack was all the encouragement either needed. « There! » she called and pointed at a ravine. I just hope a Sailor Senshi can jump that! she thought as she reached for her Henshin pen.

        The man slashed down a small tree, giving them a tenuous bridge over the opening that seemed ridiculously deep for the scant half-dozen meters it was wide. Once on the other side, Rei kicked the bridge into the depths, and felt sick as the large object slowly shrank in the distance. « How are you? » she asked her quarry, only to find the man laying on his side panting with exhaustion. The steam from his breath and body nearly concealed him where he lay.

        He’s in no condition to fight, or even run, Rei realized as she drew her Henshin pen.

        « Mars Stellar Power Make-Up! » she called, feeling the power surround and fill her. She drew an arrow and nocked it.

        She hadn’t long to wait.

        Less than a dozen, she thought of the wolves and big cats that came storming out of the woods, and slid to a stop at the sight of the crevice that blocked their way, They really are magnificent animals, as long as I can watch them from a safe distance.

        One, the most magnificent of them all, stood clear of the pack. Sailor Mars felt her mouth go dry as he changed. Fur withdrew, the muzzle shrank and a white robe formed over his nakedness, but left his muscled chest bare. The huge black wings like a raptor’s sprouted and grew from the man’s back.

        He’s . . . gorgeous! Sailor Mars thought as he smiled and extended a hand, she felt her knees weaken and her heart beating fast. Then she remembered and frowned. Jeff was enraged, but he warned us, ‘They have taken those forms falsely’, she thought as righteous fury overwhelmed her, How many times have our enemies taken advantage of our maidenly hearts?! How many times have our enemies cloaked themselves in beauty to betray us?! Rei felt a vast rage grow, and twist her features as the man extended his wings to fly across the chasm.

        She raised the bow, pushing it forward as she did. She released the arrow straight into the man’s beautiful face. She felt sick as only confusion appeared on the face she had ruined. You don’t know how I killed you? Or why? She watched as the creature fell soundlessly into the depths of the gulf. Then her rage focused on the others clustered at the far edge. She nocked another arrow.

        « Who wants more of that? Who wants to jump now? » she shouted at them, wanting them to challenge her and be killed.

        Who wants to trick the stupid little girl by looking like a beautiful angel? Who wants to use my dreams against me? she wanted to scream, How can I be so angry, and still feel like crying?

        The dragon landed behind the pack, and smiled at all of them. The animals looked back, then milled about uncertainly.

        « Now you’re in for it! » Sailor Mars assured them.

        What is he doing? she thought as Jeff took human form, only the straight, two-handed sword replacing his usual cane, was different from his everyday attire. Then Sailor Mars looked at his face, and drew back a step at the barely controlled rage she saw there. The sky had clouded over, and the sounds of an approaching thunderstorm gave an ominous note.

        « What have we here? » Jeff asked, a mockery of his frequently jovial tone, « Here you stand, His servants, in name only, his reflections, with no reflection on your own actions, yet you do not believe, not in Man, and not in God. »

        « You know what is happening, » the odd speech from animals mouths’ would have amused Sailor Mars at another time, but not now, « This will save the suffering of most. »

        Jeff took a step forward, and the pack gave ground and whimpered. He pointed a finger towards Sailor Mars which shook as he spoke. « Ask her if she would pay the price you would demand! » The storm had grown close enough that the flash of lightning illuminated his face, making the mask of rage he wore seem even more inhuman. « Life is for the Living! You have no right to steal all their sorrows, just so they do not lose their joys! You claim wisdom where there is only ignorance. »

        « And what do you know of such things, monster!? What do you know of Humanity, Man, or God? » one of the big cats snarled, then retreated as Jeff stepped towards it.

        « Humanity gets under your skin, into your being, if you will allow it to, » Jeff answered and raised the sword. A flash of lightning illuminated the blade, and a thunderclap sounded as the blade reached the apex. He pointed his finger at the pack, and they retreated again. « But you, I curse you as Faithless. You couldn’t resist. Celestine’s was your original sin, but you have surpassed all but his master the depths of their betrayal, and that account will be paid in full, in time. »

        The animals began changing into their human forms, Jeff extended his hands and seemed to force them back into their animal shapes. A lightning bolt struck Jeff as he stood with his hands outstretched, little sparks and St. Elmo’s fire danced around him, showing the expression of anger and concentration he wore.

        « You can’t do this! » one of the wolves protested, « There are rules, covenants! »

        « You dare talk to me of covenants? » Jeff shouted back, « You who break all oaths, and respect no covenants! The only suffering you wish to end is your own! You would destroy what God has created, just so you don’t have to listen to it any more! » The thunder grew in frequency and intensity, as if trying to shout out Jeff’s accusations.

        Rei cringed back, unable to hold the transformation to Sailor Mars, as mortal fear gripped her. Another lightning bolt broke over them, and the shock of the thunder drove her to the ground.

        « How dare you?! How dare you?! » Jeff shouted again, advancing and driving the pack back to the edge of the precipice. Jeff raised the sword over his head, and kept raising it. Rei watched his form grow and blacken. Tail and wings grew, tweed formed into scales that drank in all light and hope. Even the lightning that struck and wreathed him now, could do nothing to illuminate the huge dragon that stood where he had. « Now you must ask what you truly believe. »

        Rei cringed and hid her face from the terrible sight of a monster miles tall, wearing a thunderstorm like a crown, eyes and voice full of hatred and lusting for vengeance.

        From miles above came a question that froze Rei’s soul. ‘Would you expect more mercy from your former Master . . . or me?’ Rei tried to burrow into the snow, trying to hide herself from that voice, and the certain doom in that question.

        The sound of animal whines growing quieter brought Rei’s head up. Jeff, as a human, stood alone on the far side, smiling tiredly and leaning heavily on his sword. Rei picked herself up, embarrassed by her weakness. The others joined Jeff on the other side. They paused to look around for targets, but were relieved and disappointed to find none.

        Rei glanced around, then looked down at the front of her miko costume and frowned. Some hero. I see a little monster, who’s actually a friend, and I wet myself. At least lying in the snow covers up why it’s wet, she thought, Sailor Mars really is an idiot.

        The samurai was gone. In his place stood a salaryman carrying a clipboard and a hardhat under his arms. The man bowed low to Rei, and she returned it. He bowed to those across the way, and turned to walk away. Before he had completed his first step, he had vanished from sight.

        Kodachi’s cry brought Rei around. Jeff had dropped his sword, and was half-way to the ground, only the doctor and Tatewaki supporting him prevented Jeff from sprawling in the snow. He hung there limply in their grip, as Tatewaki lowered him to the ground. The doctor checked the fallen boy over, then stood up a moment later. The doctor shook his head, his face filled with confusion.

        « No! » Rei cried out as she sank to her knees, « We won! We’re the heroes! We aren’t supposed to just die after we’ve won! »

        Stupid, thing to believe, but we’ve gone so far, and fought so hard. We were nearly home, and it’s pulled away from us. From some of us, she thought and bowed her head, the weariness of the past days bearing down on her remorselessly.

        Bloody arms, my arms, bloody up to my shoulders. Blood on my chest and sleeves. Not mine, theirs.

        Sword is broken, discard it. A fallen enemy’s battle ax fits in my hand, and a long thrusting sword.

        The enemy looks on with fear and trepidation, a wide, bloody swathe cut through their lines. Cut by me. Too many of their comrades fallen to prevail against me.

        I attack. There is nothing holding me back. Nothing to hold back for.

        I am dead, and Death.

        I continue the slaughter. Some inflict minor wounds as I slay them. Those are adding up, but their numbers are falling faster. The killing does not stop. I will not stop it. Not until all of them are dead.

        All I had hoped and dreamed about is gone, given up, swept aside, but not forgotten.

        In that clarity of mind and singleness of purpose, I am nearly invincible. Nearly.

        I stumble and fall. Wounds, cold, exhaustion and bitter realization all coalesce until my spirit cannot force my body to continue. The few who have survived, they know I will rise and slay them. But if they assemble, if they attack in numbers, I shall die.

        But they do not know I shall never rise again. My powers are fading with my craving for vengeance and my fury. Each drop of my blood that stains the snow takes some portion of my anger and my certainty away.

        I am not alone, and the last of my comrades, there are others who love me. I am not helpless. I could have called down the gods themselves. I am not avenging, I am doing my job.

        I remember the warm arms around me. The warmer laughter. There is fear too, frightened not of the bully/monster, but of letting any other person get close enough that they might hurt them. To risk anyone clawing a tender heart. Foolishness, yet mirrored on me as well. We despise in others, what we most dislike in ourselves.

        I remember a walk into dreams. Not sleeping, but waking dreams. That which could never be, once freely offered. Mine for the asking. The price? The pain of my soul, the certainty of a life of loneliness, to be surrendered on acceptance of the offer, and I had to take away another’s such certainty. My heart’s desire, for the price of accepting another into my life, and proving I could be trusted not to hurt them.

        Odd when it is killing, all killing for which I am, for which I was created, for which I have served. Which I will do, but the killing is not me. I have avoided that trap.

        My foes have massed. They cannot understand my tears that freeze even as they form. They close in to slay me. I am not defeated yet, and if they all close in, I shall not be defeated. Even if, when, I die.

        If my body lacks the strength to sustain the spirit of attack, then my spirit must attack alone.

        The boldest of the ragged bunch prod my body and retreat. They are confused at my tears and my stillness. They do not strike, but gather close. Step by uncertain step, looking at the others and an excuse to retreat. They find none, I give them none. Closer, closer, closer, and I gather close my own power.

        All within reach.

        The release is almost peaceful. The death I spread, almost a caress. But they are all close, and they are all slain. No graphic wounds, but devoid of thought, even the thoughts that would keep them alive.

        They fall, the cold leeching the life and warmth from their forms. As they cool, so does my spirit. I let the cold win, and close my eyes. Hoping that I may accomplish as much in my next life.

        Sleep comes, precursor to death, but I take its hand and fall. Fall. Fall.

        The nerve-wracking screech that dragged Makoto out of a fretful sleep, and filled her with adrenaline, was almost welcome, to blot out the dreams. She ran towards the source briefly considering, What would happen to someone, to make them scream like that? Sounds like a – nothing I ever heard before. Ami burst out of her room and ran towards the noise. Makoto smiled at the medical kit under Ami’s arm. Bandages aren’t going to fix it, Ami-chan.

        I never thought she’d make a noise like that, Makoto thought as she realized where their destination was, Even if someone was killing her.

        Ami stopped short, Makoto nearly ran into her, and they stared at Princesses Jupiter and Mercury who had been running to the same destination from the opposite direction.

        This is just too weird, Makoto thought of the young adult wearing her face.

        They stood there a moment, each side wondering what to do. When Hotaru shoved Makoto and Ami aside, while Princess Pluto did the same to Jupiter and Mercury.

        « Grown ups, » the pair dismissed the others as they entered Asuka’s room. Kiima was more direct, she also pushed past, but shoved Ami into the room ahead of her, grabbed Mercury’s collar and dragged her inside, then headed back towards the door.

        I’ve got enough sense to know what’s coming next, Makoto thought as she scurried inside before Kiima could throw her in.

        Kiima closed the door in Jupiter’s face and followed Makoto to Asuka’s bedside.

        That’s going to guarantee Jupiter is going to come charging in here, Makoto thought, If her personality is anything like mine.

        Inside, Asuka sat on her bed, clutching her stomach and gasping uncontrollably. Like a pair of book ends, Hotaru and Pluto held the redhead, each resting a hand on the redhead’s stomach. Makoto recognized the pose. They’re healing her, but I don’t see a mark on her.

        Ami was about to speak, when Mercury covered her mouth and shook her head.

        Yeah, answers later, Makoto thought and looked around the room.

        Princess Mercury approached and carefully sat behind Asuka, wrapping her arms around Asuka.

        Okay, Spartan doesn’t begin to cover this, doesn’t she own anything? Makoto wondered about the barren room and felt an odd resonance, Why does that seem familiar?

        They stood there, waiting for Asuka to pull herself together and either burst into tears or explain what had happened. Hotaru got a nod from Princess Pluto, and left her older duplicate with Asuka, while she headed out of the room.

        « Will she be all right? » Mercury asked as she took Hotaru’s place next to Asuka. Pluto nodded.

        Makoto and Ami exchanged glances and realized that their duplicates weren’t so different from themselves.

        « Get away from me, » Asuka growled.

        When it looked like the two Princesses might comply, Kiima growled, « No. » Then she put her hands on Asuka’s shoulders. « You can’t just growl and scare us off like that. »

        Asuka’s attack was instantaneous. It’s more like she’s having a seizure than fighting! Makoto thought as she, Kiima and Princess Jupiter grappled the girl and held her down on the bed while she kicked and screamed, bit and cursed in a several languages Makoto recognized, and even more she didn’t. I’m strong, just how strong is she? Makoto wondered as the trio barely held on, pinning the spitting, cursing wildcat down on the bed.

        « Get something between her teeth! » Ami shouted.

        « Like my finger?! OW! » Princess Jupiter cursed and glared at Asuka.

        « Yes, and you knew my mother how? » Kiima grumbled as Asuka’s cursing took personal touch, « I’m going to ignore you, until you calm down. »

        Ami managed to shove a piece of leather in Asuka’s mouth, only to have Asuka spit it out. Princesses Mercury and Pluto added their strength to the battle to hold Asuka without hurting her.

        Just ignore what she’s saying, Makoto told herself as several of Asuka’s verbal barbs struck home on her, She doesn’t mean it.

        As suddenly as it started, it was over. Asuka went limp and began sobbing. « None of you understand, » the girl cried, « I’m a monster! »

        Makoto glanced at Kiima who seemed to be the only one who knew what was going on. Her sister pulled Asuka up to a sitting position, and just held her, as Asuka rained insults down on herself now. Makoto tried to tune out the embarrassing confessions that the girl was making to `prove` her inhumanity and worthlessness. She watched the others squirm as Asuka said things that couldn’t possibly be true about her. Pluto sat down behind Asuka and laid her head on Asuka’s shoulders, hugging her around the waist. Makoto couldn’t hear what the Hotaru-esque Senshi said to Asuka, but the redhead seemed to fall silent and collapse in on herself as the young woman spoke.

        Asuka’s tough, what would cause her to react like this? Makoto wanted to ask someone, The others were embarrassed, but they all took it in stride. Some of her comments struck a little too close for me. Anybody except my sisters, I would have decked them for saying things like that, but only . . . wait a second! How does she know that stuff?! Makoto stifled the urge to rush forward and shake the answers out of Asuka. She had to have been guessing . . . which is an even scarier thought. She couldn’t have figured all that out in just a couple of days, especially about that guy I chased. I never told her about that, and I’m pretty sure neither Hotaru nor Kiima said anything. So how did she know?!

        Makoto put that aside and considered how to help her friend, To heck with standing here waiting for permission. Makoto walked over and sat beside Asuka, taking her hand. What do I say? Makoto wondered, then realized, I don’t say anything, I’m not good with words.

        Princess Jupiter also sat beside Asuka, laying a hand on her shoulder and waiting quietly for the girl’s tears to subside.

        After what seemed like hours, Hotaru walked in with a small paper bag. « It was hard to find, » the girl said cheerfully as if everyone were not surrounding a weeping girl, « But I found one, and now it’s yours. » Hotaru set the plush furred tank on Kiima’s shoulder where Asuka could see it.

        That’s the most ridiculous – Makoto’s thought was interrupted by Asuka bursting into loud sobs again, This was worse than before. Makoto shot an angry glare at her sisters, who just grinned back at her. Okay, I’m going to have to beat it out of them later, but right now . . . She held Asuka’s hand and wondered how much could one person cry.

        Rei felt the ground change under her, and she raised her head. As she looked around, she realized they were back in the clearing. Although none of the thugs were in evidence. I don’t want to know. It serves them right.

        « We’re home, » she said as she painfully climbed back to her feet. The others were rising from where they had fallen, with one important exception.

        She stumbled over to the body as the others looked around and took stock. « We won. We shouldn’t die after we won, » she said.

        I should know how ludicrous a statement that was, but . . . it offends my sense of order, that rewards or even acknowledgment of such a sacrifice isn’t a universal constant. He was right, the universe doesn’t care about us, and the Kami have their eyes on higher things. We bleed and die as humans, and even when it matters, it doesn’t matter.

        « Heroes do live forever, » Tatewaki said quietly as he joined her, « But dying is often the price that must be paid for their victory. For those who live after, it is their burden to bear. »

        Rei bowed her head. I should pray, I know the Kami are real, I saw them, she thought, But . . . somehow, I just can’t. Is this what it means, to lose your faith? I always thought my doubts would overwhelm my faith, now I find my faith overwhelmed by certainty.

        The first rays of the sun peaking through the clouds caught her eye. It’s tomorrow, Rei realized and was stunned by the realization, After all that, only one day has passed. It’s tomorrow. She looked at the pattern of rays that cut through the clouds, making the very image of the Kyokujitsu-ki, the old Rising Sun symbol. It should be beautiful and inspiring, but somehow it just seems in bad taste right now, she thought, We evidently saved Japan, at the cost of the only non-Japanese among us.

        « It does seem –  » she began and was startled when Tatewaki jumped back with a shout. She too jumped back at the movement in front of her, then stared in amazement as Jeff clambered to his feet. Before she could rush forward, Kodachi laid a hand on her shoulder. Rei saw the girl give a warning shake of her head, then pointed towards the sun.

        Rei watched as the man raised a fist to the rising sun and screamed an inarticulate cry of rage and defiance.

         » ‘Your best effort could kill me, but you can never defeat me’, expletives deleted, » Kodachi told her and grinned slightly at the display.

        « It fits, » Rei agreed.

        Commodore Takarada moved into the radar truck displacing from the main console a lieutenant who appeared ready to chastise any who would jostle him so. Then he sees the face, the Commodore thought, I’ll have to be ready to transfer him. Anyone with an ‘Officer means Divine’ problem cannot remain in a special forces unit. He stared at the radar return that he vaguely recognized.

        « Report, » he ordered before the lieutenant could.

        « Our friends from up north are back, at least six individuals. The U.S. Navy tracked them, and vectored our fighters in when they crossed into Japanese territorial waters. The Kitty Hawk and her group are offering her assistance, and the U.S. Ambassador is in consultations with the Cabinet on that subject. »

        « So they’ll be no help until after we need it, » the Commodore joked, « What about our other friends? The ones we were sent to watch. »

        The operator manipulated several controls to widen the field of view and to project the inbounds’ tracks. « Commodore, I think that’s where they are headed, » the operator said.

        « Confirm it, and keep me posted. Carry on Lieutenant, » the Commodore said as he left to check the communications tent.

        A ship’s CIC would make more sense: communication, radar, etc., everything to fight a battle in one room, he thought on the short walk to the tent.

        « Are the field phones working yet? » he asked as he entered, « I don’t like having to send a runner in my own base camp. »

        « Commodore, I was just going to send someone, » the captain said, as he walked from behind the consoles he’d been working on with several technicians, he smelled of solder and flux, « They came on a few moments ago. Unfortunately, I don’t think it was anything we did, sir. » The man saluted, the commodore returned it.

        « Contact the Rangers watching our friends, some older friends seem to have dropped by to pay their respects. I want to know what kind of show the entertainment committee cooked up. »

        « Yes, sir. I understand our and the American forces want to crash the party. »

        « The Cabinet hasn’t RSVP’d them yet. So we watch. »

        « That one, Commodore, » a technician pointed to one console, « That Ranger has a camera feed. »

        The Commodore picked up the head set, and looked at the image of the flying jellyfish, five more in the background flying in an echelon left formation. « Soldier, have they responded yet? »

        « No, sir, » came the whispered reply, « The lights are on, and everybody is still inside. »

        « Keep your head down, soldier, » the Commodore ordered, « I’ve seen the Senshi in action. Lots of collateral damage. »

        « Understood, I – they’re firing! »

        The scene showed flame and other energies slashing into and through the targets, and each of the jellyfish completely recovering from those terrible wounds within seconds. That’s interesting, the Commodore thought as the Senshi rose into the air to battle their attackers.

        « Commodore, » his daughter called from the tent flap, « You’re needed sir. »

        The Commodore turned to the captain. « Keep me apprized of events. Don’t let those Rangers engage, no matter what. They are out-matched and have no orders. »

        « Yes, sir. »

        He was out of the tent before the man saluted. He rushed after the air force officer, who happened to be his daughter, and spotted his younger daughter, detained by a soldier, and Asuka, Kiima and Ami restraining Princesses Jupiter, Pluto and Mercury.

        « Admiral, you have to let us go to her! » Princess Jupiter insisted as Makoto Tomoe joined the restraining efforts.

        « I do not, » he said sharply, freezing all the contestants, « They have declared themselves sovereign and separate from the Nation of Japan, and we have no authority to engage or aid them. There are consequences to attitudes and opinions. They will have to face the attack as if they were sovereign to Japan, and foreign to its resources and allies. »

        The three Senshi Princesses looked near to tears as they gazed from him, to the battle that could barely be seen in the distance, and back.

        « Now, why are you wasting time and effort here, when you could be planning what action will be needed once either authorization from our government, or a request for help from theirs, comes through? » he asked with apparent irritation, letting the girls consider, « They can’t be foolish or proud enough to ignore you three and all the other help practically camped out on their doorstep. »

        Of course they can, the Commodore thought, Governments and politicians can always be counted on to be Grade-A stupid when national pride and owning up to their bad decisions is on the line. Better a petulant loser than a penitent winner is their motto.

        « Of course! » Princess Mercury said as she ceased her struggles with Asuka, « Can we plan? »

        « My room has a table, I assume the field phones are working? » Asuka asked.

        « They are, » Captain Takarada said, « We don’t know for how long. »

        « Think of three cases. One, humanitarian aid only; two, military aid; and three, full rescue and dealing with the situation with just our resources, » the Commodore said, « We may have to draw the enemy off to render aid, and you’ll be the ones to keep it away. »

        The Senshi blanched at that as the Commodore left them to their planning.

        « You’re crazy! » Pretty Sammi insisted, which made Sailor Saturn snicker.

        « Oh, and you haven’t played tricks like this? » Sailor Saturn accused, and laughed at Sammi’s stricken expression. Sailor Saturn leaned close. « What about that little ‘get the headband’ trick you played on Tenchi and your own sister? You wanted a nice boy to creep into your sister’s room, bed and . . . what? »

        Sammi was blushing and stammering so hard she couldn’t offer a defense.

        « How is this worse? » Sailor Saturn asked innocently.

        « You are evil! » Sammi insisted, « So why don’t you do it!? »

        « I don’t have the Henshin. You and Jeffery do, » Sailor Saturn admitted and smiled.

        « I gave them back to the Moon cats, » Sammi said and laughed nervously.

        « Which set did you keep for yourself? » Sailor Saturn asked as she grinned at her friend.

        Sammi sighed and bowed her head. « The archeoHenshin, the old ones that are a lot more powerful. » She looked up and stared at Sailor Saturn. « I don’t have all of them! He picked up Sailor Mars’ Henshin a few days ago. »

        « That’s okay. » Sailor Saturn shrugged. « That’s not one we need right now anyway. »

        « I still think you’re crazy! » Sammi insisted again, « You said they fight constantly. »

        « The power of Love and Justice must prevail! » Sailor Saturn insisted.

        « Can’t I just cure world hunger, or grant eternal peace, something easier? » Sammi begged.

        « No, » Sailor Saturn said finally, « Besides, once you are actually doing it, it will be fun. »

        « You’ve got a very strange idea of fun, » Sammi said sourly, pouting cutely at her friend, who grinned back.

        « I had two older sisters, neither of whom spent their whole lives chasing a childhood dream. Believe me, this will work. »

        Sammi shook her head sadly at her friend’s lapse in sanity.

        Kuno Tatewaki bore up under his burden, as befitted a true Samurai.

        « I can walk you know, » the shaman insisted as the scion of the House of Kuno carried him from the place of battles.

        « Were that true, you would have proved it by now, » Tatewaki replied evenly, then placed his profound wisdom before his opponent, « Besides, while you opine, I am struck by a greater reality. To wit, should I allow you to come to harm, after I was charged with your safekeeping, I would face the wrath of Asuka Soryu Langley, in the shadow of whose rage even the gods must tremble. If I defy you, to keep my lordly vows, I must only deal with a miffed and exhausted sor – shaman. Some might claim me addled, but all save those who earnestly seek death, would choose as I have. »

        « I could turn you into a frog, » the shaman threatened ineffectually.

        « I submit, that in straits of exhaustion and wounds that grip you, you would be hard-pressed to turn a dollar into a cup of coffee at a coffee shop. »

        « If you’re going to talk about prices, that’s a different subject. » The shaman, defeated by superior wit, sought battle with another challenger. « Rei, what’s got you so out of sorts? »

        « You did die, didn’t you? » the honorable miko asked in fear and respect.

        « I did die. That does not confer a concomitant requirement to remain dead, » the devious shaman replied off-handedly. His terrible weariness could not be concealed from the eyes of a noble of Japan, or the capable miko who traveled the shaman’s convoluted road to enlightenment.

        « Our future knows no bounds, as you eternally watch over us, » Tatewaki commented, « The limits of my joy could not be measured by mortal man. »

        « I could hit you, » the shaman replied.

        « And what would that avail you? » Tatewaki asked.

        « The vengeance of Heaven is slow but sure. »

        « Yes, I’ve heard you sing, but be warned, I have memorized the haikus of Okeda. »

        The shaman and brave miko evinced equal mystification.

        « I’ve never heard of them, » the miko admitted.

        « I believe that is the point, » the good doctor added. Both the shaman and the miko cringed, proving the knowledge and wisdom both possess, but are not the same.

        « What I have become can die, and be injured, but I don’t stay dead. ‘That which cannot die, cannot live.' »

        « I thought you sacrificed yourself to defeat our enemies, » the miko commented wistfully.

        « I did, but don’t get maudlin on me. Such a death means as much as a solid blow to the nose for me. »

        « You stagger around and bleed on people? » Tatewaki asked, endeavoring to lift the veil of gloom, « Or you fear the child with a marker and a heart filled with mischief, more than all else? »

        The miko giggled, while Tatewaki ignored the shaman glaring at the back of his head.

        « Something like that. »

        Rather than bask in his victory, Tatewaki continued, « I too find notable incongruities. You claimed impotence –  »

        « I never claimed that, » the shaman insisted.

        « Touche, » Tatewaki admitted, « You claimed near powerlessness. Yet you forced back dozens of the strongest and most cunning of our foes. How? »

        « The power was there, I simply began using my power, and forced the place to react to me. Then it became a case of making them believe that my exercise of power, and the much greater reaction, were one and the same. It was little more than stage magic. »

        « A deception, » Tatewaki commented, « Well played, like a sorcerous judo, using the spirit of the place against the spirits of the invaders. »

        « Against their fears. They too will return, being essentially unkillable, but they will have to explain themselves to mightier judges than me. »

        « So we don’t have to worry about them? » the miko asked, a smile of hope gracing her usually stern features.

        « We have to worry why they would ally themselves with the powers that they did. The powers that sent your father’s friend to his death, » the shaman said sleepily.

        Tatewaki desisted from further questions, as did the miko. We walk together into a tomorrow we had guaranteed through our own exertions. That is enough, for one day, even for a hero such as myself.

Sailor Jupiter II 8 – You Don’t Believe, We’re On the Eve of Destruction

      « Aren’t they beautiful? » Mizuno-san asked.

      I can practically see her eyes asparkle, Commodore Takarada thought, Even standing behind her. He returned his attention to the battle unfolding in the distance. There’s nothing legally or technically I can do, except watch.

      « Yes, » he said.

      The thoughts of an officer and a commander intruded, They are, individually, quite beautiful, but they have less coordination than a gaggle of raw recruits, and they haven’t the fire discipline expected of soldiers, he thought as he watched the battle up north through a pair of huge, tripod-mounted binoculars.

      « Our offer of assistance was summarily rejected, » an orderly reported from the print out, « Plans for humanitarian aid and rescue operations are left to the area commander’s discretion. »

      So if it doesn’t work, they can blame me, and if it does, they can take credit, typical, the man thought as he surrendered the binoculars to Princess Jupiter and took the message, holding it at arms-length so he could read it himself. « Thank you. » He saluted, the man returned it and left. He turned his attention to the girls who were anxiously watching, while their friends planned their next move.

      « They aren’t winning, » Princess Jupiter told the others, « Even with our help, they wouldn’t win. » She signed unhappily. « Maybe they’ll get a bloody nose, and see reason. »

      « They need to execute a two-axis attack, » Hotaru said.

      An anvil attack, you turn away from one spread of torpedoes and turn into another, the Commodore considered the WW2 tactics, I can guess who taught her that.

      « It seems more like an infantry battle than an aerial or naval battle, » the Commodore said as the flashes of color that he realized were the Senshi, emitted sparks of light, only to have the jellyfish take the hit and reform.

      « They should concentrate on one, let the heavy hitters break it up. Like that. » Kiima pointed to Serenity’s heaviest attack, which had repeatedly broken one of the targets into fragments, only to have them form together again. « Then destroy the individual pieces, instead of having that happen, like twice before. »

      « The senior Senshi were supposed to be the Queen’s bodyguard, while she destroyed our enemies., » Princess Mercury said miserably, her visor down and her computer clutched in her hands, « It was my job to tell them what was happening, to discover why the monster wasn’t falling down. »

      « The Outers aren’t helping matters, » Princess Pluto siad, « Even they aren’t fighting as hard as they should. »

      Maybe they are unraveling, losing their more stable members, and encountering surrogates here, has them second guessing, the Commodore thought, It may be time to apply more pressure, both diplomatic and military. They’ll either break or bend, either is acceptable.

      He considered the battle and his other responsibilities. « Excuse me, I have to go. » He left the girls to watch the battle without him.

      Keiko led the exhausted group forward through the hall to their hotel rooms. « You can use Jeff-san and Rei-san’s rooms, they headed north. » The Kuno siblings only nodded numbly. The girl they’d encountered the first day was up, and had five of her equally mousy friends with her.

      I can’t believe it, was that only yesterday? Or was it the day before? Keiko wondered.

      « They are so drab, they leech the color from their very surroundings, » Kodachi opined of the group.

      One of the girls stepped forward and brandished a sword that looked like the most garishly painted blow-molded piece of junk you’d find in a discount shop or a grocery store. « We are the Psychic Rumble Soldiers! PINK! »

      « MAUVE! »

      « PURPLE! »

      « CREAM! »

      « TAUPE! » they shouted as they transformed.

      « It offends, » Kodachi said as she shielded her eyes from the tasteless costumes.

      Behind the line of Psychic Rumble Soldiers, the girl was trying to signal that her friends were crazy, but not dangerous.

      « We shall rescue the Princess from the vile sorcer – »

      « Silence, » Kodachi growled, and all the transformed girls suddenly tried to hide behind their untransformed ‘Princess’. Kodachi’s panther-like stalk towards them, unnerved them further.

      Keiko shrugged and stepped back to let the younger girl handle it. Not like I could stand against a Nerima Martial Artist, except in my fighter plane.

      « Who gave you leave to speak? Who gave you the right to offend the taste of all who gaze upon you? »

      « I don’t want to be tied upside down and beaten with a ribbon until I like it! » Cream wailed in the grips of mortal terror.

      « Again, » the other PR Soldiers whimpered.

      Keiko shuddered at the thought. I can picture Kodachi doing that, without intending to.

      Kodachi had blushed, then glared at the cowering girls and their thoroughly chagrined leader. « The Rhythmic Gymnastics Team from Holy Tree High School? » Kodachi said with growing dread, « They offered little if any competition to even my most junior students! »

      « You attacked us before the match! » Purple shouted and stood clear.

      Taupe stood clear and raised a sword. « We pledged our beauty, our lives and our sacred honor for venge – »

      Kodachi stamped her foot at them, and all of them hid behind their leader. « Don’t hurt us Mistress! »

      « I’m going to kill Davis for leaving this mess to us, » the doctor whispered to her.

      She nodded. « I suspect he knew what was coming. »

      « I wouldn’t bet against the possibility, » the doctor commented.

      Tatewaki laid a hand on his shoulder. « Our treacherous shaman does such things so we might grow, » he intoned, « Still, the vengeance of Heaven is slow, but sure. »

      « You have your powers and weapons, yet still fear the Black Rose? » Kodachi asked, almost gently, then laughed.

      Sends shivers up my spine, Keiko thought as she watched the others cringe.

      « We were the prettiest athletes! » Taupe sniveled, « She told us we’d face monsters, not the Black Rose again. » The others cringed behind their untransformed leader, who looked like she wanted to melt through the floor to escape this embarrassment, while her `bodyguard` jostled to put someone else between them and the Black Rose.

      « Ah ha! Our foes have been found! » came the voice from down the corridor.

      « Why was this not unexpected? » Tatewaki asked, and frowned, « Such insanity taxes even the strongest mind. »

      Say nothing, say nothing, say nothing, say nothing! Keiko thought and prayed.

      « Oh no! The Crimson Pineapples have found us! » the Psychic Rumble Soldiers chorused, as Kodachi went white as a sheet. They all stood up, drew their weapons and shouted, « Quickly Princess, transform and lead us into battle. »

      « Don’t look! » Kodachi warned as Keiko was about to turn to discover what Tatewaki was grinning about before he ran off.

      The shrieks and cries for mercy coming from down the corridor told the story eloquently. Keiko cringed at the worst of them. The PRS stared in horror at what they saw. Kodachi only looked at them with contempt. They should have listened, Keiko thought, I guess they are that stupid.

      « Even rubber shouldn’t bend like that, » the doctor said, his face now ashen gray and his eyes locked straight ahead.

      « The vengeance of Heaven is upon you! » Tatewaki exclaimed amid the other, more damp, organic and high-pitched sounds.

      « Father and son, have a unique, although opposite, relationship with pineapples, » Kodachi said, not risking a glance over her shoulder, even though the screams were cut down, as the screamers were cut down.

      « Why are they after you? » Keiko demanded.

      « Our secret bases held out greatest treasure, » Mauve said, « A treasure that the Crimson Pineapples vowed they would steal. »

      « I always hated these programs, » Kodachi muttered to Keiko. « And now? » she asked more loudly, as a laughing Tatewaki, returned to them.

      « They could not stand against my blade, » Tatewaki announced, said blade covered with a dripping, Technicolor rainbow of ichors.

      « Now what have you to say? » Kodachi asked, « And if it is ‘All you base belong to us’ it will go hard on you. »

      « He never reversed the curse on my brother, or me, » the leader complained, « He just took that other girl north. »

      « Her safety and the security of Japan were threatened, » Kodachi said, « I shall enjoy the silence that marks another of my brother’s triumphs. »

      One we’ll hear about endlessly, Keiko thought fearfully.

      « I would have thought that rubber would be more flexible, » Tatewaki commented idly.

      Rei left the train station and walked with Jeff. The flyers she’d been handed on entering Nerima hadn’t changed, nor had the quick psychological counseling. « You’d think they’d believe me when I told them I was just seeing you home. »

      « Ah, but what else were you going to do after that? » Jeff asked.

      She frowned again. « All you had to do was get fingerprinted, and have those fingerprints compared with the ones on file, » she complained, « Just to confirm you aren’t a newcomer. »

      « Also to check, if you’re found dead or crippled, who you came in with, » Jeff replied, « Otherwise, I’d just show my pass and walk through. »

      Rei blanched at that. « The suicide rate can’t be that much higher here than in other places, Fuji-san for example. »

      « It isn’t the rate, just the means, » Jeff replied as they walked, slowly, through the streets.

      « You need to rest and recover, » she told him, « I still think you’d be better rested at my family’s temple and – what’s so funny? It’s a – oh, you’ve probably already been there before. »

      « That’s part of it. The other part is that you still haven’t grasped only a couple days have passed since you came to speak with me. We need to let the military deal with those monsters in human form. »

      « I think we could take them, » Rei said certainly.

      « You could kill other humans? People who might not even know why you were killing them? » Jeff asked, raising an eyebrow and smirking at her.

      « No, » Rei admitted, « I couldn’t. We still need to do something. »

      « We are doing something. I told you that I was kidnapped. I intend to take revenge on my kidnappers. Revenge that leaves them alive, but destroyed. I already destroyed one of them. Now I’m going to destroy another. »

      « I don’t think I like the idea of destroying people that way either, » Rei siad, « And if your description is to be believed, the youngest is a schizophrenic with violent tendencies and a god-complex. The father is . . . as useless as mine. The eldest never learned the importance of applying discipline to her two sisters or her father. The Saotomes are a self-indulgent thief and a delusional would-be murderess, » Rei hissed, barely able to keep from shouting, « Why not let them destroy themselves? »

      « Because it is their karma? » Jeff asked, « First, because damnation is never so sweet as when salvation was offered by even their enemies. Second, because you need to see these people not as their practical masks, but as they truly are, and the best time and place to do that is after I’ve put a cat amongst the pigeons. Third, with the increase of your powers and abilities, you have to learn gentleness. Simply blasting your enemies to dust isn’t always the solution. »

      « HA! »

      « Sometimes, accelerating their destined demise is much more gratifying than performing the conclusion yourself. »

      « Now that sounds like you, » Rei countered as they walked, « Is there any other reason? Amusement, vengeance, etc.? »

      « Then consider it a mission of great importance. We have half-a-dozen lives to rescue. It will also give the military time to act. »

      Rei looked around as they advanced. « So why are you planning on helping these people? » Rei asked in anger and confusion.

      « It also gives you an important lesson in appearing all-knowing and all-powerful. If I’d told you two weeks ago that I might solve this problem – »

      « I’d still think it’s an impossibility, there is no person on Earth who’d want to put in the effort to fix that situation. They aren’t my family, why would I put out the effort? They aren’t yours, so why would you? They aren’t my enemies.

      « Why didn’t Tatewaki and Kodachi want to come with us? » Rei asked to change the subject, « They lived here, didn’t they want to come home? Or get vengeance of their own? »

      « Because Nerima contains too many bad memories, » Jeff said quietly, « They are one of the reasons for the kiosks at the train station, only now they know it, and why. Better to let it all lie fallow, and let another harvest the whirlwind for them. »

      But we aren’t anywhere near their part of Nerima, Rei thought in confusion, It isn’t upscale, but it certainly isn’t a warzone, like the part I went through earlier.

      « But that isn’t what’s really bothering you, is it? » Jeff asked in a more serious tone.

      Rei remained silent as they walked, but considered what really was the problem, I guess I just don’t know. I met the Kami, and I saw that room, but my doubts about who I am, and whether I’m doing the right thing, are bigger now than they ever where before.

      « Does anything matter? » she finally asked, « What I saw, what I know, it’s like humanity doesn’t matter in the Universe. »

      « They don’t, » Jeff told her sympathetically, « In the grand cosmic scheme of things ‘Humanity’ doesn’t matter. There were entire races who live and loved and strove against all things in the first milliseconds after the Big Bang. They’re all gone now, they literally froze to death as temperatures dropped to where normal matter became possible and time became more like what we experience. Only the Great Old Ones and the Outer Gods know they existed in that brief flicker. Their philosophy, art, music, history, all gone. They tamed the entire universe, and struggled mightily against the ending of it, and now, they aren’t even remembered. Is that fair? Is that just? »

      Rei shook her head.

      « Let me explain, I’m a Great Old One, but unlike Asuka, I never was a human. I learned to mimic human behavior and conventions. I learned to dress and talk and do all the things that let me simulate humanity. But I can not be human, I never was human. So there are things I just get wrong, because I had to learn them rather than they’re being part of me. I’m more like a Western Dragon, amused by humans, without being part of them. Part of the problem you’re having, is you’ve lost faith, and in that loss, you’ve also lost sight of what a priest is supposed to be. When you first dealt with your grandfather, I bet you thought he had some special connection to the gods, or he studied ‘Profound Wisdom’ at school, or something like that. »

      « Something like that. »

      « Then as you trained, you learned that reading people as well as the scriptures, that knowing, or guessing, which of the holy words to trot out at any given time was what you did. In the Bible, Jeremiah laments being alive, that’s not what you quote to a new wife groundlessly nervous about having kids. Likewise talking ‘blood and thunder’ is the right thing for someone who needs to look at the might and glory of God and tremble a little.

      « You looked upon the gods and asked ‘is this all that there is?’ When they answered ‘yes, and you can’t understand it all, and it doesn’t really care about you’ it’s perfectly normal to have doubts. You have all the answers now: 1.) the Universe is cold, lonely and horrible; 2.) most gods are content to let things run as they always have; 3.) adversity exists because is serves a higher purpose to have adversity exist; and 4.) none of that matters in the daily lives of the people who desperately need the services of a priest. »

      « But if everything I tell them is a lie . . . what kind of life is that? I can’t tell them the truth! »

      « What is truth? I said adversity exists, not evil. Are plagues, wars, famines all evil? Yes, but they started as a small adversity, which if we’d get off our butts and do something about them, they wouldn’t turn into something we call evil. Quarantine the sick, shoot Hitler and his inner circle in 1935, drive the Somali government from power and start agrarian reforms. Kill a few, save millions, but that’s not ‘sensitive’, ‘it stigmatizes people’, ‘murder is never the answer’. So millions of lost lives later, we have evil. That’s the other truth of that room, and the universe. In that room, the decisions are easy, it’s all a matter of degrees. In the universe, the decisions are harder, because humans have to live with them, and all the idiots who never raise a finger critiquing every decision. »

      « It can’t be that simple. » Rei sighed. « Yes I can, I know it can. It just seems so wrong that it is that way. »

      « I thought you believed that life was all suffering? That’s the view of the infinite from the inside. Let me tell you something about it from the outside. The struggle matters. The determination to stand up and do your job one more day, the composition of one vision of beauty that maybe only a few will see, that matters. Helping, truly helping others, that matters. It isn’t eternal wisdom you seek when you go to speak with a priest, it’s a lessening of the burden you are currently carrying, » he said the last, stressing every word.

      Rei stared at him and his intense expression. She gulped and nodded.

      « You have to take the knowledge you have, be it scriptures or day-to-day living, and apply it to the situation at hand. I may talk like I know everything, but that’s just because I take what I do know, and apply it to whatever situation I find myself in. And frankly, I avoid the situations that I don’t have any experience in. You’ve got to learn to do that too, either acquire experience in a situation, or apply your existing experiences to give you the wisdom, or appearance of wisdom to give them more confidence and fewer doubts. Certainty is a poison. I poisoned you because you led the Sailor Senshi to their deaths, because you were certain. A soldier can’t be certain, because the enemy will always do the unexpected. A priest cannot be certain, because no one can ever understand what is in another person’s heart. Being really confident is acceptable, being certain means you’ve given up looking. »

      « So I killed them, and you don’t want that to happen again. »

      « I don’t want them to walk into a trap thinking they have everything covered. I want them, and you, to pause and think about all the other help and advice you could have gotten. Good Lord! You had the three entities who created this Universe, three or more Great Old Ones, and although you didn’t know it at the time, a collection of starships that taken together would constitute the third most powerful starfleet in this Galaxy. We could have pulverized Beryl’s forces from orbit, then sent in a ground attack force more devastating than a thousand half-trained Senshi, to make certain everyone was dead, with all of you directing things from a starship’s CIC out in the Oort cloud, » he saw her fear, and mellowed his tone, « Yes, I’m very angry with you. I’m angry not because you hurt me, not because you took some – you took things from me I can never get back, but because you threw your lives away once you all decided to be stupid together. But you were my friend, so I have taught you the error, and how to avoid it in the future. »

      « Thank you, and I’m sorry, » Rei said in a subdued tone.

      You loved one of us, Rei kept from him, Not me, but one of the others. That’s what I did to you . . . and maybe to the Kunos as well. Sailor Mars you are, were, an idiot. Try to be less of one in the future.

      « The Hino Rei/Sailor Mars who led her friends to that disaster has been destroyed, » Jeff said, « Your death was not required. » Jeff gestured at the building they had arrived at. « Here is the key to our victory, if you know what to look for. »

      « So that’s how you appear omniscient? You apply what you know to the situation? »

      « Exactly, » he said as they started to climb the stairs, « People need things bigger than themselves, you can show to your close companions that you have doubts and fears, it’s uplifting for them to lift you up. The priest or wise man is the representative of the gods, or God, not a replacement. »

      « So I have to be bigger than myself? Doesn’t that contradict the certainty you were talking about? »

      « It’s a balancing act, you have to be bigger and more sure than you really are, but then you have to lead them to the answers, you can’t just give it to them. Since more often than not, they already have the answer, they just don’t want to see it, » he said as she stepped around the ramps that had partially replaced the stairs.

      « Sounds like a waste of time, » Rei grumbled as she walked up the ramp.

      « People will surprise you, » Jeff told her, « That’s the reward, to see how far beyond the `ordinary` you can convince people to be. »

      « So how are you going to extend those people? The ones you’re taking vengeance on? » Rei asked.

      « A diamond cutter uses a wedge softer than diamond to split the hardest natural material. It takes knowledge of the proper angle and the weak points. I lived in 1947, so I know a weak point they will never expect. Splitting off the unnecessary bits changes a lump of rock into a glittering diamond. »

      « So why would I even bother with them, and why would you? I know you already explained it, but that would be my thinking and the thinking of anyone else in Japan. »

      « And if I told you I knew at least one person with a passionate interest, and that I would be able to convince? »

      Rei paused, « Anybody but you, I’d say they were talking out of their hat. With you . . . ? »

      He walked up to one particular door and knocked, swiftly taking his hat off.

      Rei squelched a desire to steal it from him and try it on. She waited as the door opened and the older woman stared owlishly at them from her wheelchair.

      « Ma’am, I was a friend of your late husband, and your father. »

      The woman’s lip curled at the seeming impossibility that the young man was telling the truth. « That’s not funny, young man. » She moved to close the door.

      Jeff caught it. « Tendo Mirei, your family has need of you. »

      « WHAT! » Makoto shouted as she towered over Pretty Sammi.

      The magical girl cringed, but stammered out her reply, « In order for you to be a true defender of Love and Justice, you have to bring someone out of the darkness. Ideally, your greatest enemy. »

      Makoto cracked her knuckles so Sammi could see and hear. « And just how am I going to do that? »

      « Getting him to marry you and father your children would be the best way, » Sammi said distractedly, finger on her cheek as she considered, then she glanced at Makoto.

      Makoto stood staring at the wall, her expression indicated that a particularly disgusting youma had just barfed all over her.

      « I’m sure there are other ways, but that would be the best example, » Sammi offered helpfully. Makoto stared at her, one eye twitching.

      Hotaru was right, Sammi thought, This is kind of fun. Terrifying, but fun. ‘Besides, then you’ll have empowered a couple of the Senshi,’ she told me at the time. If I live through this, it might be an advantage.

      « How do you expect me to do that? » Makoto asked and cringed slightly at the possible answers.

      Sammi smiled and shrugged, then held her wand high and in a loud voice announced, « The powers of Love and Justice cannot be denied. »

      Makoto handed the Henshin back to Sammi. « It’s not worth it. »

      « You would abandon a divine mission to protect Japan, and the whole universe, from chaos? You would abandon your sister and friends, to hide in the shadows when you could be having grand adventures? You would leave a poor soul in torment to linger in the darkness? » Sammi asked, her eyes tearing up and her hands clenched under her chin. She gazed at Makoto with her very best soulful eyes, and let her tears dissolve the girl’s resolve. « Didn’t he give you a soulful kiss, rather than let you drown? »

      Makoto wrapped her fist around the girl’s collar and held her off the ground while she asked through clenched teeth, « Where did you hear that? »

      Sammi just shrugged, despite Makoto’s grip. « Some things cannot be hidden from a Guardian of Love and Justice. »

      « Are you saying . . . he’s in love with me? » Makoto asked, still with Sammi in her grip, but with the ‘barfed on by monsters’ look again.

      « Oh no, I’m not saying that, » Sammi said, « Can you put me down please? »

      « Oh, sorry, » Makoto said, and let out a sigh of relief as she set Sammi down. « That would really have been scary. » She missed Sammi slipping the Henshin into her skirt’s pocket.

      « I’m saying the exact opposite, » Sammi said as she waved goodbye and disappeared.

      « Yeah, the opposite would mean . . .  » Makoto said as she briefly considered, « I AM NOT IN LOVE WITH HIM! » she shouted at the departed girl.

      « Big sister’s in love? » Hotaru exclaimed as she and Kiima burst into the room, « That’s wonderful! Is he big and strong? Does he like your cooking? Will he help you run your flower shop, or will he help in the bakery? What’s his blood type? He should be compatible with yours. » Hotaru hugged her around the waist, then broke off and looked down. « Is that a Henshin pen? »

      « Or are you just thinking of someone special? » Kiima asked.

      « I’m not in love with him! » Makoto shouted at her sisters.

      « It’s an omiai and she’s nervous, » Kiima realized, « They say that arranged marriages are more successful than marriages for love, so you should be happy. » Kiima paused and considered. « But it’s out of character for father. » She snapped her fingers. « It must have been Ami’s mom. I bet she heard about how you’ve been dateless and always fighting, and found a nice boy for you. She’s a pediatrician, so she either knows he’s healthy, or he’s the son of a doctor friend. Maybe she knows a nice boy studying medicine and martial arts, and he finds typical girls boring, so when Ami’s mom met you . . .  » Kiima clasped her hands and rested her cheek on them. « It’s so romantic! I’m so jealous! You don’t have to make me the maid of honor, but if it’s a Christian wedding, I want to be one of your attendants. I know you like baking, but the wedding cake should be done professionally. »

      Makoto had been staring at her two sisters with growing terror and confusion. Now she ran screaming from the room.

      Hotaru took a step to run after her, and Kiima pulled her back.

      « The mark of a good general, is to know when to attack, and when to let your target worry about it, » Kiima warned, « You get her anymore wound up, and if she meets him today or tomorrow, we may be planning a wedding and a baby shower for her. »

      « She wouldn’t do that, » Hotaru scoffed.

      « Stranger things have happened when passions are inflamed, » Kiima said sagely.

      Hotaru grinned. « Too bad Asuka doesn’t know where he is. It would be fun to send her after him right now. »

      « Patience, a good sauce must blend it’s flavors slowly . . . at least that’s what Makoto is always telling me, » Kiima said, « Besides, there’s six new flavors of ice cream in the canteen. »

      « We must keep our priorities, » Hotaru agreed.

      « I think you’re still pulling my leg, » the older woman, Tendo Mirei, said as Jeff pushed her wheelchair.

      Rei was as jumpy as a cat. How did he manage that?! Of course, he knew them in his native 1947-48, she realized and nearly slapped herself silly for assuming it was god-power, That’s what he meant about keeping to your expertise.

      « Hino-san doesn’t quite feel comfortable that I appear young, yet knew all those details, » Jeff said with a grin at her, a grin Rei wanted to pound down his throat with both fists and both feet. Yet the smile remained unassailed.

      I think he wants me to attack him, and I won’t be manipulated like that again, Rei thought.

      « Now Rei, there’s something you need to know. The youngest is the nicest, most enthusiastic girl you could ever want to meet. Completely inept in most things and assumes that years of hard, diligent effort can be matched by boundless enthusiasm, but she’s always full of ‘this time I’ll get it right’. As long as you . . . as long as she doesn’t think you have romantic intentions towards her. Once she thinks you’re romantically inclined toward her, ‘raving psychobitch’ is a good description. That aspect of her personality makes her refusal to accept reality outside her own little world suddenly becomes not only threatening, but dangerous, so that’s something to avoid. »

      Rei glanced at the old woman.

      « Is this right to discuss her family so cavalierly? » Rei hoped he took the advice.

      « What makes you think you’re speaking Japanese? » Jeff asked, « No price was offered, but I think you’ll find you can read and speak several languages you couldn’t before and you’ll find that a room full of Rattlesnakes, Habus, or Cobras is more an obstacle course than a deadly threat. »

      Rei stopped and stared intently at him.

      « You thought you were doing all that to save Japan? Most gods I deal with on more than one occasion all know rewards are de rigeur. Although they sometimes give gifts that take some getting used to. »

      « So she can’t understand us? How do I switch back to Japanese? »

      « Concentration, you’ve suddenly become fluent in another tongue and it will take some getting used to. It shouldn’t take long. »

      The last sounded subtly different to Rei. She tried to duplicate that slight difference. « How long is long? »

      « That’s what I’ve wanted to ask, » Mirei said as she turned in her chair, « You two hissing like snakes was very relaxing, but now I want to know all about my family. They never needed me before, why do they need me now? »

      Rei blanched about that. He isn’t going to tell her all he told me?! Is he?!

      « Akane is attacked by a pack of idiot at her school, which has lowered her opinion of boys. Soun was destroyed by the loss of his wife and tends to cling to certain things like a drowning man. Kasumi is the politest person you could ever hope to meet. »

      « Too polite? » the woman asked.

      « I will neither confirm nor deny anything. I’ll leave you to decide. »

      The old woman frowned at that.

      « She does need a mother’s or grandmother’s advice in the rights and responsibilities of the lady of the house, » Jeff said.

      « What about Nabiki, she always seemed a scamp? »

      « She has become an efficient soldier. The British were particularly impressed, favorably so, » Jeff said, his smile telegraphed he was hiding something, « She makes trouble, but usually that trouble is for the enemy. »

      « Young man, » Mirei said sweetly, « If you do know me, you know I don’t like those kinds of games. What did she do? Save the King himself? »

      He shrugged. « Okay, I don’t know precisely what Dame Tendo did, I was in Siberia at the time, » Jeff said, « She was always too embarrassed to talk about it. Although she did return with three submachineguns, when she’d only left with one. »

      The old woman looked at Rei. « Is he pulling an old woman’s leg? »

      « I wouldn’t bet on it, » Rei replied, remembering her recent exploits.

      The group walked through Nerima in silence, although a boy screamed his lament as he sailed over them.

      « I don’t want to know. »

      « Gosenkugi, » Jeff told Rei, « Probably scanning for magical signatures, and his equipment just exploded. »

      « Why would they need my help after all this time? » Mirei asked, « They made it clear I was `interfering`. »

      « Several months ago, Kasumi was hurt, and the last time I checked, she was in much the same condition as you are, wheelchair-bound. »

      « Let me guess, » Mirei said, « I have to get the others to help her do the housework, and teach her that the lady of the house is also the disciplinarian. »

      « That is an entirely reasonable set of assumptions, » Jeff told her as they arrived at the entrance to the Tendo homestead.

      « I think my daughter-in-law never approved of me, and that I wasn’t physically perfect, » the woman admitted, « It hurt, but I lived with it. »

      « I assure you, » Jeff said as he knelt to look into the woman’s face, « They need you, more now than ever before. »

      « I was afraid of that, » she frowned and replied, « I don’t get around as well as I used to. »

      « The young girl I remember wouldn’t let anything stand in her way, » Jeff said with a wan smile.

      Rei knocked on the door. « Aren’t we going around back to challenge them to combat? » she teased. She waited in silence with the others.

      The door opened to reveal a lovely and poised brunette. « Welcome to – Grandmother! » The young woman seemed taken aback, but not as much as Rei was. « I’m delighted to see you! And you’ve brought some friends. Come in, come in! »

      « Wheelchair bound? » Mirei asked of the clearly unhandicapped girl.

      « She’s an oni? » Rei asked commenting on the small horns on her head.

      « Clearly things have changed, » Jeff admitted, « Shall we go? »

      As he wheeled Mirei inside, a priest came running towards them. What he was trying to tell them was lost as he stepped on a rake, which popped up to hit him in the face. Stepped back to step on a shovel, which tossed a rock that hit him in the back of the head. He then stumbled into a garden hose, which wrapped around his legs and hurled him straight up, to collide with an invisible barrier overhead. The trio were illuminated by the tremendous sparks the shield threw off. As the priest crashed into the ground as a smoldering heap, Mirei tugged on Jeff’s sleeve.

      « You were right, I wouldn’t have believed all of this, » she told him.

      « What is going on, » Rei hissed at Jeff, literally as she consciously used the alien language.

      « That is a very good question. The trouble is, Miss Tendo really was crippled, and even a healing spell wouldn’t have returned full function to her legs. Now you have to figure out a way to both exorcize her, and let her keep her legs. »

      « I could do an exorcism right now, » Rei growled as she reached in her purse.

      « Ah, » Jeff told her as he caught her arm, « I was hasty last time I encountered this demon, not this time. »

      « You! » the cry from the short-haired girl brought everyone’s attention around, « Now you’re going to get it! » She raised a fist and charged.

      Jeff moved away from the trio to give Akane a straight shot at him. Side-stepping at the last minute, leaving her to try to run across the top of the koi pond.

      « Grandma! ‘Kane’s playin’ in the mud ‘gain! » he shouted as Akane fell half-in half-out of the pond.

      As the girl charged, and Jeff dodged, he asked, « When are you going to say hello to your grandma? »

      The girl’s expression twisted in anger. « You can’t trick me like -! »

      « Akane! » Mirei said sharply.

      The girl turned in stunned amazement, and seemingly wilted as she saw the stern gaze glaring at her.

      « Davis-san, you were right, I have been away too long, » Mirei said calmly, her voice strong, « Both of you come with me. » She turned and headed towards the house.

      Kasumi grinned, waved to the two others, and followed a numbly shuffling Akane towards the house.

      « Tell me, » Rei said, « For fun do you pull the wings off flies, or wait until someone else is, and set the torturer on fire? »

      The Commodore walked into the makeshift brig with the artist portfolio in his hand. To confront the woman who’d claimed to be his daughter. She glared hatefully at him. He ignored it. « You are one of the enemy, wearing one of our uniforms, » he explained, « That makes you a saboteur. According to the Geneva Convention, you have no rights. I could shoot you right here and there would be no recourse. A body cavity search was the pleasant option. I could have called for an autopsy to find what you were concealing. »

      You also made the assumption that my daughter wouldn’t keep me apprized of her whereabouts, he thought, She does, as befits both a soldier and a loving daughter. I know who you are, and I am going to send them a clear message.

      « You had no right! » the woman, who still sounded like his daughter, complained.

      « I just explained, you have no rights, » the commodore replied as he glanced at the various items they’d removed. He didn’t touch any of them, but they were catalogued, location as well as other data. The large gold pen with the highly decorated cap was the most important, and the clincher to his theory.

      So, that’s what you fought so hard to keep, he thought, But you weren’t expecting to fight trained soldiers. I just wish Asuka had told me about how ticklish the Senshi are, before we had to search her. Well, live and learn.

      He turned around and opened the large portfolio he’d been carrying. Pulling a large feather from it.

      The woman looked from the feather, to her bare feet and the stocks that held them. Suddenly her defiance dropped away. « You wouldn’t! »

      « Then answer my questions fully and truthfully, and there will be no need, » he said as smiled at her, letting the softest down at the tip of the feather play of over the woman’s feet. « Ve haf vays of makink you talk. » He watched the sweat glistening down the woman’s face as she realized what she was facing.

      Mariko squirmed as she heard the screams and shouts from her fellow prisoner. Her father’s aide de camp sat and served tea to both of them. She ignored the screams from the other room and waited.

      He couldn’t be . . . torturing someone, could he? she was too frightened to ask. She endured the seeming hours of the other woman screaming, before it mercifully ended.

      His aide stood as her father entered. He looked at her and set a large feather on the table. « Please go in and verify the answers we got during the first session, » he told his aide, who picked up the feather with a grin, and walked out. He concentrated on Mariko. « Keiko let you in here? »

      « Yes, » she said, her confusion reigned, « You were – tickling her? » Then the screams and shouts for mercy continued. Mariko blanched, while her father poured both of them some tea.

      « You didn’t notice anything unusual about her? » he asked quietly.

      « She seemed, a little serious, but she is when she’s working, » Mariko told him.

      Am I next? Mariko wondered, This can’t be happening. They’ve been polite, but I’ve also been cooperative.

      « A group of aliens captured a number of ski lodges, with the intent of converting the captives to their citizens. We are containing them. They sent a spy into our camp for an as yet, undetermined purpose. We are interrogating said spy, by the most efficient means. »

      « You tickle them!? » Mariko asked, incredulous that the method would work. Her father nodded. « I have to report this . . . I’m sorry father, but it is my job. »

      « I’ve already gotten approval. Your network is famous for rumormongering and docudramas about supernatural events. You can tell them the truth, with our full cooperation and they’ll only have you to believe. The government and the military will say nothing about it. The Cabinet finds that completely acceptable, with some persuasion from the commander on the scene. »

      « So because my network just puts out garbage, you’ll let me report, and deny everything to everyone else, » Mariko said and examined her hands when her father nodded.

      « Consider it your punishment for coming into a quarantined area. You get the scoop of the century, and no one will believe you. »

      « Are you sure this isn’t an attempt to get me to change networks? »

      « No comment, » he said and smiled.

      Mariko grinned slightly, then frowned as she turned to another subject. « Where is Keiko anyway? »

      « Safe, I hope. After the battle in the capital, I’ve been thinking about transferring her out of the unit. Only she has earned her place. I just wish both of you would settle down and give me some grandchildren. »

      « I have a career, and you have disapproved of every boy I dated. »

      « There was that polite gaijin who brought you home from Nerima, after you got drunk. »

      Mariko shuddered at that. « You should meet him. You two are two peas in a pod. » She smiled at her father. « Very polite and cultured, but extremely scary when he wants to be. What are you smirking about? »

      « He’s with Keiko, maybe she’s more his type. »

      « Oh father! You’re incorrigible! » she laughed, now recognizing the sounds from the other girl were indeed laughter.

      Makoto pulled out of the closet one of the outfits she’d brought with her. She posed with it over her casual slacks and blouse, and frowned. She threw the outfit on the bed and selected another out of her small closet. Another pose, and another frown. Unacceptable, she thought, then hung her head.

      « What am I doing? » she asked herself sadly, « It’s not like I’m going on a date or something. »

      Who am I kidding? After listening to Ami, Kiima, the Princesses and Hotaru chatter on about how a cruel-eyed prince only needs love to redeem him, and implying I was the best to give it to him, a date is exactly what I’m treating this as. She smoothed down her outfit and began returning the fancier clothes to the closet.

      « Wha -? » Hotaru jumped back when Makoto jumped. ‘ -cha doing? »

      « None of your business firefly! » Makoto growled at her sister.

      « That’s the wrong outfit for your fight, » Hotaru told her.

      Makoto noted the girl was hiding something behind her back, but decided not to tickle her until she gave it up. Because Kiima will charge in here and tickle both of us until we surrender. And she’s immune, the villain! Makoto thought.

      « What? Something with frills and bows and useless ruffles? Oh, and a long train of see-through silk, just to get caught on every bush and bramble between here and Nagasaki. »

      Hotaru looked confused. « Only two bows, » she said, smiled and brought out what she had hidden. The leather vest Makoto wore when following Sailor Saturn, and a very small, string bikini bottom Makoto knew she didn’t own. « These! » Hotaru said with a grin.

      Makoto stared at her cross-eyed. « What!? Dressed like that! The ruffles would get caught and I’ve have to tear the dress. That gets caught, or he tugs those two strings, I’ll be naked! »

      Hotaru blinked and stared at her older sister. « Isn’t that the point? »

      « OUT! OUT! OUT! OUT! OUT! OUT! » Makoto shoved the giggling Hotaru out of the room.

      « I’m sure he’ll be gentle, » Hotaru shouted through the closed door, « You just have to be too. »

      Makoto charged from the room with murder in mind.

      Rei looked at the eager expression on her face, and the plate of what appeared to be freshly baked cookies. But they don’t smell like any kind of cookies I remember, Rei thought nervously, With Kasumi or Jeff, I’d look forward to this, even if it was experimental, Rei thought as she stared imperiously at Akane. She noted the sweat running down the girl’s face as she stared.

      « I made these for you. »

      She makes an admission of premeditation sound so charming, Rei thought, Well, I’ve got friends on the other side. Dying won’t be so bad.

      « Did you taste them yourself, before sharing them? » Rei asked, and watched in horror as the girl’s nervousness became fury.

      Salvation arrived in the form of a softball, it struck the edge of the plate and flipped all but one of the `cookies` to the ground. « Of dear, » Mirei exclaimed as she rolled up, « I hope no one was hurt. Oh there’s one left, that’s marvelous. Akane dear, why don’t you eat that one, then we can go and make some more. »

      Akane stared at the cookie with some trepidation, her knuckles going white on the plate.

      « You did taste it first, Akane dear? » Mirei asked, « Didn’t you? »

      « Of course, grandm –  »

      The cookie Mirei plucked from the plate, sailed into Akane’s mouth and she swallowed it. Akane looked a little green. Jeff caught the plate she released as she turned a lot green. Then came white, then blue, back to green, and Akane ran off.

      « Thank you, » Rei breathed as the looked at the cookies that lay on the ground.

      « The girl needs a lesson in following the recipe, and you’re welcome. There’s a reason to use baking powder, not talcum powder, but you don’t use either in cookies. » She turned to Jeff. « You wouldn’t consider . . . no, if she wouldn’t listen to Kasumi, she won’t listen to you either. »

      « Sorry, » Jeff admitted, « I have tried. »

      Mirei nodded and rolled off after her granddaughter.

      « I copied one of her recipes, what resulted was the best superglue I ever heard of. Nice and runny, and won’t really stick to anything before it sets up, cleans up with water, but let it set up, and dynamite is your only option. Not bad for miso soup. »

      « I wish I thought you were joking, » Rei said as she picked up one of the cookies. She was surprised by the weight of it. « Doesn’t baking powder make things light and fluffy? »

      « Don’t eat that, » Jeff said with alarm as Rei sniffed the cookie, « Davidson tartan wouldn’t look good on you, and – »

      « Oregano, wasabi, scouring powder, » Rei told him what she smelled, and she carefully broke the cookie in half. She glanced around and spotted Jeff hiding behind a large tree. « It’s not going to explode! » she told him, then nervously looked at the cookie. « He’s just teasing me . . . I hope. »

      « I’m not willing to bet my life on that, » Jeff replied as he approached.

      « What is loose tea doing in a cookie? »

      « She grabbed that instead of flour when she was rolling out the dough. »

      « Cloves instead of chocolate chips. » Rei shook her head. « Maybe a real chef could make something out of those ingredients, but I can’t imagine where she got the idea they’d be good in a cookie. »

      « Kasumi just grabs stuff off the shelf and starts cooking, Cologne just grabs stuff off the shelf and starts cookie, Ukyo –  »

      « I get it, but that’s their kitchen, » Rei protested, « They know where everything is. »

      « That’s abstract reasoning, and is beyond her, » Jeff replied, « Like I said, she assumes if someone makes it look easy, then it is easy. She actually said ‘I thought you were supposed to breathe underwater.’ The girl doesn’t think, beyond getting a preconception in her head. »

      « You’re making that up! » Rei insisted.

      « I’ll swear on a stack of whatever book you think would be most binding, » Jeff replied with aggrieved innocence.

      « Telephone book. » Rei just shook her head.

      Any wreckage is sad, the commodore thought as he watched the last of the crystalline towers collapse, underminded by the attack of their old enemies, But that place did have a cold, unearthly beauty. Why can’t you unbend enough to ask for help? It’s not like you can’t see us, and all we could bring. At least allow the medics in to treat your wounded.

      One by one, then in small groups, the lesser Senshi had fallen from the sky. While some fell from wounds, others fell from simple exhaustion.

      « Can’t we help them? » Princess Mercury asked plaintively.

      I’ve seen that look far too often. ‘Can’t you make everything all right?’ Only, I’m just a soldier, that isn’t my real job. My job is to frighten people so they don’t do things like this, or inflict punishment when they do, he thought, But that’s not what she needs right now.

      « We sent medics out, they were driven away, » he replied, « Where’s Miss Langley? »

      « Miss Kodachi left some notes on the ordinance problem, » Princess Mercury asked, trying to hide her concerns, « Asuka’s working on them. Doctor Tomoe went with her. What about Doctor Mizuno? »

      Your mother, he realized, Only not your mother.

      « She went forward with the surgical team, » he replied.

      Even though she isn’t yours, you don’t like that one bit, do you? he wanted to ask. He laid a hand on her shoulders

      « You can’t help someone who doesn’t want help. Do you believe that if you three went sailing in there, they wouldn’t divert forces to arrest you, or drive you off? »

      The princesses seemed to be on the verge of protest, when Mercury’s honesty trampled it. « No, you’re right. If we hadn’t left . . .  »

      « Then you’d be lying out there, at those things’ mercy, instead of out here ready to leap to their aid the moment they can’t refuse it, » he told her.

      She didn’t brighten at that, but she did look back to the battle.

      You aren’t their father, he thought about what they really needed, what his daughters too often needed. He glanced at Mariko interviewing Princess Jupiter, who also kept glancing at the battle and looked physically pained that she couldn’t be part of it.

      « Commodore, » the guard captain approached and saluted, « There is something you need to come and see. »

      He returned the man’s salute and followed him.

      Just outside the prisoner’s cell, he spotted the guards, all looking confused and ashamed.

      « Sir, several minutes ago, the captive suddenly cried out, collapsed, and became that crystal. » He pointed through the window in the door at the blackened piece sitting on the bed. « It then blackened and cracked. The soldier on duty said it initially looked like a sea urchin. She summoned the sergeant of the guard, who summoned me. No one had entered the cell or unlocked the door. I gave the order to open it, search the cell for an unseen occupant, and I summoned a forensic team, as well as additional troops in case it was a trick. »

      « Has anyone touched it? » the Commodore asked.

      The soldiers chuckled nervously.

      « So you’ve seen some of my daughter’s programs, » he joked, relieving the tension, « No one is to touch it with their hands, gloved or not, tools only. Use biowar and explosive ordinance protocols, you’ve all been trained, and I expect you to use that training. This seems up Davis’s or the Senshis’ line, have Sailor Saturn and Pretty Sammi brought here. Brief them on the protocols and they are under the same restrictions. They are not to touch it. »

      « Yes, sir. »

      I think she really died, the Commodore thought, It’s just a guess, but somehow it makes sense. If they are linked to that city, its destruction could be destroying them. He stepped outside to consider, when a bar of unbelievably brilliant light cut through the night, accompanied by a thunderclap that drove him to his knees. As he blinked away the afterimages, he saw where the bolt had ended: one of the creatures in the distance. It broke apart on impact, but unlike the Senshis’ attacks that did the same, the bolt converted the fragments into a series of secondary explosions that immolated two more of the creatures. Three of the six had been obliterated completely.

      The Commodore mentally traced back the path of the bolt and shielded his eyes against a second such shot, as he ran for the lab where the special weapons team had been working on something that might have the very effect he’d just witnessed.

      Smoke poured from every opening of the tent.

      Asuka’s in there, he realized as he headed in, only to be repulsed by the acrid smoke.

      A figure walked out of the tent, as she cleared the smoke, the gas mask she wore became apparent. « Sorry, Admiral, » the redhead called and pulled the mask up so she could be heard, « I really thought Koda-chan was on to something. Boy was she! We’ll let the smoke clear, then I can show you what we’ve done. Oh, I sent Professor Tomoe out to safety before I tested it. He’s really smart, and not as limited as Plasma Boy. »

      « Did you leave anything of the lab? » the Commodore asked incredulously as he watched an unbelievable amount of smoke continue to pour out of the tent.

      « Sure! » Asuka’s enthusiasm overwhelmed her brief frown. « We rigged a system to vent most of the smoke out of the test chamber, but there was some leakage. »

      The Commodore carefully entered the tent, and noted the flexible tubing leading from the large box that was still opaque due to the smoke inside. ‘Koda-chan’ made the breakthrough, and ‘we’ figured it out, the Commodore thought, She’s fine and completely back to normal.

      « It’s figuring out a military application, » Asuka admitted, as she indicated the board covered with chemical formulae and complex mathematics, « I can do it, but I think you want something your people can use. »

      « Yes, that would be best, » the Commodore admitted, more that the smoke stung his eyes. Asuka’s symbology seemed subtly alien, and extremely disturbing to look at. « Did you see the results of the test? »

      « Of course, » she replied sharply, « I just want to know where the Outers were, I didn’t see them in the battle. »

      The Commodore’s blood suddenly froze. « Thank you! » he turned and left.

      That’s why they didn’t simply wipe the floor with their enemies! Their heavy hitters were elsewhere! the Commodore thought as he headed towards the commo tent at a fast walk. Who do I have to send into the fray? Stupid old man! Thinking they would send all their strength to defend against an enemy, when they recognize an even greater threat elsewhere. Sammi and Hotaru are here, Jeff and Hino-san will be a match for them, so they’re safe. That leaves two very vulnerable targets!

      « Good afternoon, Commodore, » the Scholarly Dragon looked down into the scrying window and smiled as the military personnel blanched at the sight they saw through their side of the window. « Langley informed me of the problem. It is well in hand. »

      « Would you mind giving us the details? » the man asked politely.

      « Sailor V is with the possible target, and they are not where they are expected to be. I’ve also made a phone call. The collision of dopplegangers should be quite interesting, considering our interlopers are outnumbered two to four, counting Sailor V. I also have a reserve, which could completely overwhelm them, should that prove necessary. You might want to expedite your southern force’s arrival. They’ve been bolstered considerably, » the Dragon assured them.

      « Thank you, » the man said and bowed.

      The Dragon cut the connection and considered. « You seem to have forgotten one important piece, one I think the far more likely target. I only hope the girls have retained some of the skills Langley and the boy impressed upon them. Saving his life will generate a much more favorable impression than their first meeting did. » The Dragon smiled as he returned the scrying pool to watching the two blondes walking and chatting their way through the college fair.

      « Yes, this will do nicely. »

      Minako closed her mouth to keep from drooling. So many yummy guys! she thought happily as she stared at a couple of male gymnasts going through a routine. Poor Usagi, she can’t decide between guys and food. Guys! Yes, guys! she reassured herself as Usagi dug two trenches in the ground trying to drag Minako away from the gymnasts and to a stand offering free octopus balls.

      Minako noticed the sudden loss of determined pull, and nearly fell over when she didn’t have to compensate for Usagi anymore. She turned to see if ‘Bunny’ had tripped over her own feet, again, when she saw him, Okay, you do know how to pick’em. She noted Usagi’s stare which she usually reserved for Makoto’s bento, or cookies. Oh yes! Eat him with sauce! Minako started walking towards him, when Usagi yanked her back.

      « What are you doing?! » Usagi asked in utter terror.

      « I’m going to talk to him, » Minako said, and winked, then she smirked, « You want to come too? »

      Usagi looked even more stricken. « What are you going to say? He’s a college boy! »

      Minako took Usagi’s hand and bent a finger back just enough to promise pain. « How about whatever we think of once we’re there? » She smiled and dragged the stunned rabbit after her.

      I wonder if all of Sailor V’s fans in Japan are as brain-dead as she is. If she isn’t careful, she’ll never get married or amount to anything. Crap, now I sound like my mother!

      The man looked at the two school girls, and put on a practiced smile. « Are you lost? »

      In your eyes, Minako hoped she didn’t say aloud.

      « We were hoping to find someone to show us the fair, » Minako said and prayed she wasn’t drooling, like Usagi was, « Does that ‘Guide’ name badge mean you can do that? » She closed the rabbit’s mouth and smiled at their guide, trying not to ramp the smile up to grinning like a maniac.

      « Yes. But aren’t you two kind of young to attend college? » he asked, a polite brush-off.

      « I have to decide whether I go to school here in Japan, or go back to England and attend Cambridge or Oxford there, » Minako tossed off, enjoying the slightly stunned expression on his face.

      Not a dumb, little school girl now, am I? she didn’t ask aloud, then looked at Usagi, who seemed to be painfully assembling a thought, Crap! I just admitted I was in England! She’s going to guess, correctly, that it was the same time as Sailor V.

      « Oh, well. I’m Chiba Mamoru, and I’d be pleased to be your guide. »

      Saved, Minako thought as Usagi focused her full attention on beefcake.

      « Aino Minako, and Tsukino Usagi, » Minako said, and elbowed Usagi to get her to say something, anything, except stare off into space.

      « Beautiful, » Usagi managed to dredge up.

      Minako watched Prime Beef blush. Should I just beat her unconscious, or kill myself righ – Minako thought, until she caught sight of the two flying figures Usagi had been referring to.

      « Yes, they are, » she said as she shaded her eyes to see them better.

      Something is not right about them, Minako realized, then concluded something else, I’ve got to change into Sailor V! But that will leave Usagi alone . . . with him! The World isn’t FAIR!

      « Get her someplace safe. I’ll get the cops! » Minako told them as she ran off.

      The sacrifices I have to make! she thought as she searched for a concealed place where she could transform unseen.

      Setsuna piled out of the car and looked for a good place to change. I don’t know who sent that message, but putting ‘The Princess is Threatened’ and a map where on every flat surface in the house got our undivided attention.

      Michiru pointed to a half-finished stand which would conceal them long enough.

      Haruka shouted as she spotted the problem, « Our doubles must have decided to become the onlys, and they’ll start with this princess of yours. »

      Setsuna ignored the jibe, not only because her jaw was still wired shut. Although Sailor Pluto’s was not. The other two transformed and followed her out of the stand.

      « Crescent Beam! » a blonde in a Sailor Suit shouted, emitting a beam that struck the one eerily similar to Haruka.

      « Sailor Uranus, stay close to one of us, your double is too close to your appearance. It may confuse that fighter, » Sailor Pluto told the other Outers as her eyes narrowed and she concentrated on the other analog.

      « Actually, I have a better idea, » Uranus told her, « I always wanted to beat you up. Now I can! »

      « All right then, » Pluto agreed.

      « Come out and face your punishment! » the false Uranus shouted.

      « That’s Sailor V! » Sailor Neptune recognized the girl fighter, « What’s she doing in Japan? »

      « Fighting our enemies, » Uranus reminded them.

      How do you know they’re after you? » Usagi asked, holding tight to Chiba-san’s hands, to prevent him from marching out to be killed.

      « I just do. I’ve always gotten hunches from picking things up. I’ve got one of those hunches now. I have to – »

      « NO! » Usagi pulled him back deeper into the building.

      Think, Usagi! Think! she demanded.

      « What do you think they’ll do after they get you? After they’ve killed you? Do you think they’ll just go away? They’ll probably demand more! »

      He stopped struggling, and looked thoughtful.

      Usagi wanted to scream, He’s so adorable!

      « You’re right. Besides, it would distract Sailor V. » Mamoru bounced off the far wall and slid into a boneless heap on the floor from where Usagi threw him as she ran to the huge window, to get a glimpse of her idol.

      « Sailor V is here? Where? Where did you see her?! »

      A dark and ancient slayer of gods and dreams considered beating his head against his scrying pool. « That girl could screw up gravity, given a chance! »

      The Scholarly Dragon ignored the chuckling of Dark Han, who had been checking on the dragon eggs. He checked the other elements of his plan and decided as long as disaster was avoided, he could live with it.

      « Keep laughing little god, and I’ll find out how good with ketchup you really are, » he growled and returned to watching the battle.

      GrandMaster Saturn stared at where Princess Uranus had disappeared to, and scowled. She never follows orders. We have to stay together. Our skill and experience should overwhelm that little upstart pretender. Then Uranus, sword in hand, came back at a dead run.

      « They fried your tail and you come running back to me? » Saturn asked disparagingly, she barely parried Uranus’s swing with her Time Staff, but the knee in the crotch got her.

      « You aren’t – » she gasped and parried Uranus’s blow, despite the pain.

      « Yes I am! » the false Princess Uranus told her as she again tried to chop Saturn’s head off.

      I need a distraction! GrandMaster Saturn thought as she saw the real Princess Uranus, beset by Venus and Neptune, and the odd phony Pluto coming towards her.

      « Oh poor Neptune, » Saturn siad. The girl looked away. Allowing Saturn to return the gift she’d gotten a few moments before. But the real Uranus running back to the GrandMaster, with her tail fried by the three imposter natives pursuing her. Saturn recognized the vintage of their uniforms.

      « They can’t fly. We’ll come back later. » She carried her beaten ally into the air, before they raced away to safety. She glanced down as the fire from her never accurate allies, fell off.

      The Dragon considered the figures. « Well my little cat’s-paws, » he rumbled, « You have done well and I always pay my debts. » He concentrated and cast the spell.

      Setsuna looked at the battered Uranus and Neptune, then at the two fleeing imposters. « We should change back, » Setsuna said and saw the grimaces on their faces. She didn’t let them see her own feelings at her return to her injured state. They found the stand and quickly concealed themselves inside and returned to their badly battered civilian identities.

      I wonder if the others have their ‘Senshi-injuries’ remain with their civilian forms, and vice versa? Setsuna wondered as she stepped out into the sunlight with her two allies close behind.

      A sulphurous cloud exploded from beside them. As the cloud thinned, it revealed a huge, black tiger man carrying a long, black staff. He extended a clawed finger at them. « Whaa ha ha ha! Nothing can save you from the doom I wreak upon you! » he laughed as he raised his staff to aim it at them.

      All three tried to scatter, but the blast came too quickly and covered all three of them. Setsuna heard Haruka’s and Michiru’s screams start and cut off. Her own cry of surprise was followed by another as the pain in her jaw vanished, as well as her other burns and bruises from the earlier fight. She looked at the other two, who also were devoid of their injuries, bandages and casts.

      Setsuna turned towards the thoroughly mystified tigerman. « Yes? » she asked sardonically and raised an eyebrow.

      « Oops, sorry, never mind. » The sulphurous cloud enveloped him as Haruka charged. When she emerged from the other side, all she had was a terrible cough.

      « I hate dealing with people from Nerima! » Haruka managed between coughs. Michiru smirked but flexed her arm.

      « At least he did a thorough job, » Setsuna said as she felt inside her mouth and found the wires and other bracing all gone, « Even my lost teeth have been restored. »

      Michiru knelt and picked up the discarded staff. « Doesn’t ‘ACME’ mean highest or something? » she asked.

      « Just be glad he wasn’t a coyote, » Setsuna murmurred.

      « Meep meep, » Haruka replied, « The other two must have thought it was rabbit season. »

      « We are not doing that bit, » Setsuna told them sternly.

      « Yes, Daffy, » Michiru said gravely, « We lost Sailor V, and the Princess who hasn’t discovered who she is yet. »

      « Maybe she won’t have to, » Setsuna explained, « The Queen up north already knows, and rules. »

      Haruka took on a mulish expression. « Then why is she here, and why should we trust someone who’d try to assassinate her counterpart? »

      « Perhaps she wanted to force Usagi to become the Princess, » Setsuna explained and smiled indulgently at them, « They fought us fiercely, but didn’t simply level the building she was in. »

      The two Outers sighed and walked back to their car.

      I am disturbed by the attack, and their apparent target, but my counterpart was leading it. So it has to be part of Queen Serenity’s plan. I just wish I knew what that plan was, Setsuna wondered as she walked, Is the Princess to be her viceroy, or her successor.

Sailor Jupiter II 9 – Don’t You Understand What I’m Tryin’ To Say?

      The fields she traveled across were covered with burns and holes, and now it was snowing. « Odd weather for July, » Dr. Mizuno said as she located, instead of a wounded girl, a strange crystal, « Doctor Tomoe, here’s another one. »

      The man approached quickly, wearing the same heavy isolation gear she wore. He brought out a pair of plastic tongs to remove the blackened sea urchin-like crystal from the hole it lay in. He placed it in a sample jar along with some gauze padding, and slipped the jar into a padded case.

      « How many is that, Doctor? » Dr. Mizuno asked.

      « Forty-seven, Doctor, an ironic number if we find no more, » Doctor Tomoe commented.

      Dr. Mizuno returned his smile, and looked at the isolation-suited rangers who were moving stealthily among the trees. Amazing, she thought of the seriousness they applied to `securing` the area around the two scientists, They wouldn’t last an instant if the Senshi came back. She frowned as she considered the three figures who would make that difference. I thought Ami was just spending more time with friends, finding a life outside of books and scholastic interests. Instead, even if she doesn’t remember, I know she was fighting these monsters, and not `worrying` me, about putting her life in constant danger. I can’t imagine what Professor Tomoe is going through, all three of his daughters were part of it. Maybe the Admiral is right, they have to be trained and supervised. Ami-chan is already getting a schoolgirl crush on Langley-san, Makoto-san and Princess Mercury. Two who are `smarter` than she, and one who is completely different, but kindred. I can’t trust the Admiral, he manipulates and commands too easily, but he may be right. Ami-chan can learn more about the real world here, than she could in the best cram school I could ever afford.

      « Doctor! » one of the rangers called, « We have a whole group. » He pointed practically at his feet.

      Doctor Mizuno walked over carefully. I don’t want to step on one accidentally, she thought.

      « What happened to all of them? » she asked, « Guesses and wild theories are perfectly welcome, because science doesn’t explain this. »

      « Maybe once they lose energy, they revert to these, and they’ll have to be heated or irradiated to bring them back, » the ranger told her, then shrugged, « I saw it in a movie once. »

      « I saw that movie too, » Dr. Mizuno commented as Dr. Tomoe approached and the trio examined the crystals, « But as damaged as they are, I don’t think we can bring them back. »

      « Unless they are part of something bigger, like that jellyfish thing, » the soldier replied.

      Doctors Tomoe and Mizuno stared at each other, seemingly reading each other’s thoughts. « We need to contact the Admiral immediately, » they said as the idea coalesced.

      Asuka watched herself stare at herself staring at the gold square Raccoon had put on the table. A triple reflection, disappearing in the distance, receding, she thought, Pulling away from warmth and humanity. I promised I’d never do that. Now, do I even have a choice, did I ever? The outermost Asuka raised her eyes to the Meliorist who stared at the memory/nightmare unfolding.

      « You know what this means? » the innermost Asuka had asked while refusing to touch the horrid thing.

      « I know, » Raccoon had replied, « I’m afraid just one of us won’t be enough. »

      Why?! the middle Asuka screamed in the grip of watching the unfolding nightmare.

      « The Stars are Right! » outermost Asuka and the Meliorist said together, along with the middle and innermost Asukas.

      Only Raccoon continued, « They don’t know what they’ve set in motion. Soon, something will have to be done. Who’ll do it? Washu? It’s her fault we’re in this mess in the first place. Tsunami? She barely understands, Sasami understands better. Tokemi? She thinks her ‘callous, but necessary’ moves put her at the grown-ups’ table. All three of them will have to learn they’ve been playing in a tide pool of a huge shark-infested ocean, rather than the pond they envisioned, and the tide is coming in soon. »

      « So one of us will have to . . . no, both of us will have to, won’t we? » the innermost Asuka had nearly wept as she asked.

      « It will require only one, but circumstances may arise. Some are even now attempting to profit from this. Seeking an early way out. »

      « Why us? Why not someone else? » the innermost Asuka had asked, demanded.

      « For me, it was what I was manufactured to do. You, I’m asking you. Just because it’s me asking, you still have the right to say ‘no.' »

      « And try to live with myself later? » she had asked, « No thanks. If you go, I go. I wish just once we could leave the ingrates to the wolves. »

      « How many ingrates do you really want to lose? There are places you could hide, where events will not touch you until I have succeeded. »

      « And how many innocent lives will be lost along with those that deserve it? Lost by my staying on the sidelines? »

      « As many as Tenchi’s apotheoses cost. Those can be restored as we have seen. What we’ll lose, we cannot recover. »

      « Why not!? » the innermost Asuka had shouted at Raccoon, « Why should we lift a finger to help that troika of morons! Let them and their grand experiment die and dissolve! How many lives have they already destroyed with it? What’s one more iteration? Let them resurrect it out of the ashes. They’ve done it many times before, let them do it again, when someone else obliterates the place. Yes, I’ll miss all our friends, but they’ll return . . . just like us. They can’t really be destroyed, and neither can we. We can just lose our Humanity. Have already lost it, if I’m believing the things I’m saying, » the innermost Asuka had said as she knelt on the floor and wept.

      Raccoon had knelt beside her and had wrapped his arms around her, letting her cry herself out.

      « I hate being this weak, » Asuka had cursed.

      « It’s not weak to be desperately afraid of what we’ll become to do this. I’m not pleased by this situation myself. Frankly, it terrifies me too, » then he had added quietly, « The real problem is, they won’t return. The ‘troika of morons’ have their answers, although it will take them another millennium or so to fully understand them. They will not restore these people if it ends early. The experiment, the purpose for all these lives and their suffering, is over. »

      « I remember how horrible that sounded, » the outermost Asuka commented, « Even hearing it again doesn’t make it any better. »

      « It’s still horrible, » the Meliorist agreed, « If the tools gave you the answer, you don’t just melt them down. You keep them, and these tools are alive and sentient. » She shook her head at the idea. « And we thought the Great Old Ones and Outer Gods were inhuman and inhumane. »

      « I’m just being a ‘silly girl’, aren’t I? » the innermost Asuka had asked.

      « I’m not even thinking that, » Raccoon had replied, « You’re afraid, and rightfully so. I’m afraid, but that doesn’t erase the fact that this has to be done. »

      « I – DON’T – WANT – TO BE – A MONSTER – IN – HUMAN – FORM! » the innermost Asuka had made as clear as she could. « Maybe you can manage that trick, but I can’t! » She had cupped her hands in front of her. « Like sand, I can feel it slipping through my fingers, and I can’t grip hard enough, or catch it . . . I just have to watch it slip away. » She had stood suddenly, to tower over him. « And you want me to throw away what little I have left? » she had demanded of him.

      « No. But you may have to. »

      « And you of course have a plan. »

      « When have I not? » He had stood to face her. « When you didn’t already have one? And made sure I knew you did? This one may just put us back beyond status quo ante, if it works particularly well. »

      « Okay, granted, » Asuka had said in a much calmer tone.

      « It’s just a framework, » he had admitted, « Because it depends on others acting according to their nature. After all, a plan is –  »

      « ‘Just a framework on which to make changes,’ yes I got it. Just tell me the weepy rabbit isn’t a major portion of your plan. »

      Jeff had taken a moment to study the ceiling, as if looking straight at the outermost Asuka. « Keystone actually, » Jeff had admitted, while staring at the outermost Asuka as if he could actually see her, until he couldn’t ignore the innermost Asuka’s incredulous silence any longer. He had turned to face the innermost and had told her gently, « She’ll be in the best position to both see the answer, and deal with it. It won’t be a problem than can be solved intellectually. That leaves Makoto and Usagi. »

      « You can’t get any more unintellectual than Usagi, » the innermost Asuka had said. The innermost Asuka faded, leaving only the middlemost and the pair who watched her.

      The middlemost Asuka awakened. She stared at the violin that at one time had given her so much peace and pleasure, and now was an item of dread.

      « We should tell him about that, » the outermost Asuka suggested, « The music and being able play, it’s always helped. Now that I can’t . . .  »

      « What could anyone do? You know as well as I do that there’s nothing he or even the Dragon can do about this, » the Meliorist reminded her.

      « It wouldn’t have worked back home, » the outermost Asuka said to change the subject, as the image of the middle Asuka faded as well, « Won’t Usagi be shocked. »

      « That’s why you decided not to tell any of them, better to get them to act `in character`, » the Meliorist said as she too faded away.

      Asuka found herself awake, but not alone.

      Princess Pluto sat in a chair watching Asuka intently. « Bad dreams? » the young woman asked.

      « You have no idea, » Asuka said, then considered, « And thank you. » She curled up and went back to sleep, praying for no dreams.

      « I can’t believe you let him get away! » Minako shouted at Usagi, « Even if the paramedics had to take him to the hospital, you should have gone with! »

      « I . . .  » Usagi whimpered.

      « Well, that’s a brigade under troubled waters, » Minako said firmly, and rounded on Usagi, « Find out what hospital he’s in, and go visit him. »

      « Minako-chan, I’m the one – »

      « Something, a present should get you into his good graces. Not something cute, but something entertaining. »

      « The wall he collided with. I’m the one –  »

      « Maybe ask, beg that Makoto girl to bake something and just leave it ‘From a Secret Admirer.’ Then – » Minako looked around worriedly. « Can you make your way home without me? » Minako asked.

      Usagi nodded and Minako ran towards the odd disturbance she’d felt, leaving Usagi alone.

      « I’m the one who threw him into the wall and put him in the hospital, » Usagi said to no one, « Why doesn’t anyone believe me?! »

      « I believe you did it, » Luna whispered, « I believe. »

      Doctor Tomoe checked his watch as he completed his initial design for a tank shell that incorporated one of the new MASEBER firing cavities. « Yep, they’re fighting, right on time. Come on Kiima. » He also signaled the squad of SPs who’d come to expect the two fiery genii to strike sparks from each other.

      Usually they build on each other’s ideas, but they also build on each other’s pique, he thought as Kiima charged in ahead of the more mortal soldiers. Princesses Pluto and Jupiter were already physically restraining the pair. While Tatewaki and Princess Mercury tried to play peacemaker

      « Such a scene of love and fellowship, » Tatewaki said, turning Asuka and Kodachi’s combined wrath on him. « Perhaps it is time to train your protegees? » he offered. The two girls turned away from each other, but nodded.

      At least I’ll be home and back quickly, he thought.

      Makoto stalked the street of Nerima. « When I was trailing Hotaru, I couldn’t keep from tripping over the guy. Now that I want to find him, he’s nowhere to be found! » Makoto complained as she looked around the area. Then she spotted the Tendo Dojo. « Naw, he’d never go in there. Maybe the school. Next time, I drag Hotaru here whether she wants to go or not! »

      She ran toward her next goal.

      Rei watched Akane stomp up to her and Jeff, armored in her Righteous Indignation (Patent Pending), and from her moral high horse glowered down at Jeff the merely mortal. « You boiled my cookies! » Akane accused, finger out thrust at Jeff, who merely looked bored.

      That should be the opening to a comedy routine, Rei thought, I can’t help myself, I’ve just got to prick that ego of hers.

      Rei gasped. « Oh Aka-chan! Is that really something you should be shouting where the neighbors can hear? Especially when you’re engaged to that Ryoga boy? I know the romance novels all talk about the dark stranger with the even darker past being renewed and reformed by love, but they don’t mean it that way. »

      Akane’s eyes grew to the size of saucers, while her pupils vanished into pinpoints, as for once, she understood exactly and correctly what someone was implying. Her finger curled back of its own accord.

      « Oh how phallic, you suffer rejection or rebuke and it just curls up like that, » Rei said in her best `amazed and confused` voice and expression. « And you said you were going for a walk! » Rei shook her finger and scolded Jeff.

      Jeff only raised an eyebrow in reply.

      « I – I’d never – what makes – I wouldn’t – even at knife point – what kind of girl do you think I am!!? » Akane finally shouted through her stammering.

      « Happosai’s disciple and heir, » Rei replied smoothly.

      Akane looked even more horrified. « You told her! »

      « She could have guessed it herself. His room isn’t exactly concealed, or locked, » Jeff replied.

      « Your own statements and assumptions about others clearly point to Happosai’s doctrines, » Rei commented, « No wonder that Oni is having so much trouble. With Happosai’s disciples and aura here, there can’t be much to work with, except Kasumi. Even your gestures and favorite weapon, the shinai, are phallic in nature. »

      Akane looked like she’d taken one of Happosai’s bombs to the face, as steam poured out of her hair and one eye twitched. « You – don’t – think I’m – like – that, do you? » Akane whispered.

      « Who else has been stealing my underwear then? » Rei asked patiently, staring at Akane, « People act out all kinds of hidden desires when they sleep. Sleep walking is just one aspect of it. »

      The girl bowed her head and walked away, slump-shouldered and wide-eyed.

      « You handled that very well, » Jeff complimented Rei, and gave her a small `golf` clap.

      « Too kind, » the miko replied and bowed, « She wanted people to enjoy – uhh oh, round two coming up. » Rei watched as Akane approached again, even more angry than the first time. « She doesn’t take a hint, does she? »

      « Not if you dipped it in chocolate and served it in her sundae. »

      « They were breakfast, » Jeff said idly to forestall Akane’s first comment, looking at the notes he’d scrawled about their real problem.

      « Don’t you want to apologize? » Akane insisted.

      « For having people enjoy your cooking? » Jeff asked, not taking his eyes off the paper he continued to write notes on, « I hardly think so. »

      Akane looked ready to continue the argument, instead Rei interjected, « So you didn’t want people to enjoy your cooking? » she asked just awash in a sea of seemingly innocent confusion.

      « Of course I did. »

      « So you aren’t thanking Davis-san for finishing what you started? » Rei asked.

      I just sound so perplexed, Rei thought as she stared at the girl, who now seemed confused by the path the discussion had taken.

      « Why should I thank him? »

      « So you didn’t want people to enjoy your cooking, » Rei `realized` aloud.

      « Of course I did! I just didn’t expect him to turn them into porridge! »

      « He is a Scot at heart. So you are objecting that you didn’t get any? Didn’t you sample them when you were making them? » Rei said, her confusion written all over her face, « That’s very childish Akane-chan. »

      Akane tried repeatedly to produce a suitable retort. In the end, she threw up her hands and stormed off.

      « I see what you mean about a bull in a china shop. Violent, and easily distracted. »

      « A halfway-decent rodeo clown could defeat her easily. »

      « Not nice to say, but very true. Why does Kasumi seem so frightened of you, but not me? » Rei asked.

      « The Oni recognizes what we both are. You haven’t acted, so you aren’t a threat. I have suggested greater and more effective villainy, and I’m a Great Old One. That scares the Oni, so Kasumi is scared. »

      « With all your scratching and figuring, have you come up with a way to heal her and drive out the Oni? » Rei asked pointedly.

      « I may have a way that destroys the Oni, is that better? » Jeff asked and grinned, « I think tonight we can perform the ceremony. We just have to live through the rest of the day. »

      « Good luck. Yes, it is better. The Oni’s last act will be one of healing. He should reincarnate higher along the path. »

       » ‘He’?’ How do you know it isn’t female? » Jeff asked.

      « Because I haven’t heard `her` say ‘Darling’ even once. » Rei enjoyed Jeff’s face fault, and went to find Mirei and Nodoka.

      This place, these people, are insane, and not in a good way. If Jeff is right, Nodoka and Genma convinced themselves that their son had become Burakumin, while neither of them were or are. And good old Akane-chan holds tight to that belief. Is it stubbornness, stupidity, or both? The first one who admits defeat has lost the fight, so they can never admit defeat.

      She spotted the sickly young man sitting in the sunlight on the porch. « Ryoga-san. »

      The man grimly nodded. « You’re the sorcerer’s friend? » he said with venom, although the effort induced a coughing fit Rei was content to allow to continue.

      « You’re the boy who used to slip into Akane’s bed, and attacked a demon because you thought you were attacking that sorcerer? The demon put you in your current condition, not Davis-san, » Rei replied coolly.

      Ryoga frowned at that, but held his tongue.

      Here’s another one that Jeff could heal, Rei considered, But he’s one who puts all the blame on others.

      « It’s Ranma’s fault. »

      « Yes, yes, and because of him, you’ve seen Hell. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments for your numerous cancers cannot be pleasant, and if not for Ranma-san’s decency rubbing off on Davis-san, he might have left you in the street to expire of radiation poisoning after you mistook a demon for him, and attacked it. I can instantly see how you still being alive after such a blatant display of stupidity, is all Ranma’s fault. How you are the blameless puppet in the hands of others. After all, if you were a man, you’d live with your life, instead of hiding from it in blame and denials. You and Akane are well-suited for each other, selfish children who refuse to grow up. One final point, you blame Ranma for having seen Hell, it is more truth that Ranma has the direct responsibility for insuring that you don’t reside there permanently. I’ve been there, Hell deserves you, and vice versa. Good day to you. » Rei walked away from the stunned boy and continued her search.

      « You and Jeff-san seem to like throwing stones at graven idols, » Mirei said as she seemed to roll up out of nowhere. It was all Rei could do not to jump.

      « My husband and his father were policemen, » Mirei explained as Rei got herself under control, « The art reflects a need for stealth and swift movement. »

      « You certainly have mastered that, » Rei admitted as she calmed down.

      « Any progress on my eldest granddaughter’s condition? »

      « The Oni or the paralysis? » Rei asked, « The Oni, has an instant cure; the paralysis, we’re working on it. » Rei leaned back and saw the beautiful embroidery reading ‘Crippled Old Hag’ across the back of the wheelchair.

      « First gift I’ve gotten from Kasumi-chan in years, » Mirei said cheerfully.

      ‘There’s nothing that Oni can do that’s not already in a person’s heart’, Rei remembered the old monk telling her, Does she hate her grandmother, or is she trying to get her grandmother’s attention?

      « She made some very nice paper dolls from Soun’s bed sheets, with a kitchen knife, » Mirei said gravely.

      « While Soun was asleep in them? » Rei asked.

      « He wasn’t asleep, but he was in them, » Mirei said and laughed, « I think that girl is trying to get them all to quit ignoring her. There’s a great deal of anger in her, trying to live up to her mother’s `saintly` reputation, » Mirei’s expression darkened before she continued, « When the woman was anything but a saint. » She paused and stared. « What is that idiot woman up to now? » Mirei pointed to Nodoka, who had her sword out, and was trying to threaten Jeff with it.  » ‘Where’s my son, he’s my property, and I have to kill him’, » Mirei commented as she turned and headed towards them.

      « Jeff better take her seriously, » Rei replied as she followed, « She may not be very good, but you don’t have to be at that range. »

      « I’m more worried about what he’ll do to her, » Mirei commented.

      « Put that thing away before I hurt you with it, » Jeff told Nodoka as the ignored the blade at his throat.

      « You are hardly in a position to be giving orders. I, however, am, » Nodoka told him, « You will assist us in recovering my son. »

      « Your son died in the Nerima canal, I can show you the exact spot. The boy you lay claim to, is not yours. » Jeff looked up at her. « We have had this discussion, and we can go round and round again, and arrive at the same point. Why would I surrender anyone to your tender care? Did it ever occur you or your husband, that all the times others bought Ranma, they were trying to save him from Genma, or from you? Ranma is decent enough, in a rough and uncouth manner, a good soldier in the making. Why would I be any less of a man than all those others who offered merely food or money to rescue Ranma from you? »

      Nodoka frowned at that. « Then you should prepare to die for your refusal. »

      « Nodoka, » Mirei warned.

      « This is Saotome business, Tendo Mirei. »

      « I was going to tell you that he will hurt or kill you, if you don’t back off, » Mirei said, « And if that’s your attitude, then on your head. »

      Nodoka pushed in, only to have the blade batted aside. Before she could react, Jeff stood, punching her in the throat as he did. As she stood gasping he grabbed her wrist and twisted her arm around in a smooth, complicated arc. Her eyes shot out and she made soundless screams as her arm popped loudly thrice. Jeff grabbed her other wrist and duplicated the twist and the three pops.

      Rei winced as Jeff twisted the silently sobbing woman’s arms around her back and over her head, lifting her slightly off the ground, and driving the Saotome Honor blade through her kimono’s sleeves and into the tree he’d been resting against a moment before. Tears streamed down Nodoka’s face as her feet scrabbled for some purchase to take the weight off her dislocated shoulders and elbows.

      « Jeff. » Rei approached him.

      « Not this time, » he said darkly, then raised his voice, « You all seemed to have confused me with Saotome Ranma. I shall correct that assumption. Where he would forgive all sins, I will instruct and punish. You wish to live in the past, he would vainly argue. I say so be it, I shall treat it as the 1940’s. Let the Imperial heroes in the house issue forth and face the awakened giant’s terrible resolve! »

      « Nodoka! » Genma shouted and bounded towards Jeff, then froze, looking from his wife, to the boy and the gun he had in his hand. Genma bowed in the pose of the crouching tiger. « I humbly beg that –  »

      « No. Next! » Jeff shouted.

      Akane rolled up her sleeves and stepped onto the porch, only to have Soun and Kasumi drag her off and out of sight.

      « Mars Cosmic Power Make Up! » Rei called and transformed. She lifted an ornamental stone lantern and walked towards Jeff. She set the lantern down and drew her bow, aiming the arrow at his heart. « This supposedly only kills monsters, » she warned, « Are you prepared to put your previous immunity to the test, after that little display? » She nodded to the silently screaming woman behind him.

      Jeff frowned. « You may give her a step stool, » he relented and stepped out of the way.

      Rei set the lantern under Nodoka and set her feet on the ornament. Nodoka looked at her gratefully. « Don’t thank me, I did it for Kasumi-chan and Mirei-san. Next time you decide to commit suicide, have the common decency to do it in your own home. Frankly, you deserve a good switching for your part in this, and I intend to give you one. » Rei ignored the terror in the woman’s eyes as she stepped out of the woman’s line of sight.

      Rei walked back to Mirei and pointed to the porch. At the older woman’s odd glance, Rei explained, « I want her to wonder and worry about it awhile. »

      Mirei nodded.

      Makoto stood outside the Hino family’s temple. Of course he would have escorted her here, she thought angrily, That’s what a `gentleman` would do, and he wants everyone to think he’s a gentleman. She glance at her outfit of a pair of gray slacks, white shirt, her leather vest and a charcoal grey jacket. I’m glad I picked this, it makes it easier to hide in the city or the brush, she thought as she watched the group of men walking around the temple, They’re waiting for someone. Those other `visitors` are hostages to the priest’s good behavior or the arrival of whoever they’re waiting for. If someone is hiding out there, awaiting orders to deal with them. I can’t see them. She pulled the henshin pin from her jacket pocket. This thing, I should have tested it. Seen what it looks like when I transform: how bright, how loud it is, now . . . I can’t risk it if it does draw too much attention. She hunkered down to watch for some opening. This is like my training, look for an opening. What would the admiral tell me to do? ‘Go home and leave it to the professionals’. And the professionals would watch the sentries, figure out gaps in their coverage, look for their back ups. I guess I’ve got some watching to do.

      The Commodore walked the crystalline corridors, he and the two ranger-medics had seen no one, yet. Sometimes, I wonder about politicians, he thought as their footsteps echoed back on them, This time, I’m sure. They’re brilliant, and we’re dead if they’re wrong. Rather than any weapons, the rangers were burdened with medical supplies.

      He knocked at the door to the throne room, and waited. When no one opened it, he pushed the door open and held it for the rangers to follow him inside.

      « Come to gloat? » GrandMaster Saturn asked as she tended some of the many wounded lying in beds and on the floor of the throne room. Queen Serenity dozed on the throne, looking completely unregal as she snored and drooled in her exhausted sleep.

      If she has healing powers, they must have worn her out using them, the Commodore thought.

      « The door was unguarded, and humanitarian aid was left to the discretion of the area commander. And for the record, I don’t gloat, not when people are hurt. »

      « Hurt by our stupidity? Especially? » the GrandMaster snarled.

      The rangers set the red cross-marked satchels near the medics who moved among their fellow Senshi. None of the medics looked to the GrandMaster for guidance, they simply accepted the rangers’ supplies and help treating the many wounded.

      « Instead, you shame us. »

      « There was no shame in your defeat. Only three people in all Japan have prevailed against those creatures, » the Commodore said, « I was rather hoping on increasing that number. »

      « So you fired the blast that rescued us? »

      « It was not meant to interfere with your operations, » the Commodore said smoothly, « It was an inadvertent test of weapons we had been developing to combat the very adversaries you were engaged with. »

      Yes, we shot it, not because we thought you’d be grateful, but because you had our enemies pinned where we could shoot them. But we aren’t expecting a ‘thank you’, and we won’t turn that weapon on you.

      « I notice you and Sailor, sorry, Princess Uranus were not taking part in the battle. Nothing too serious I hope, » he added, and was nearly frozen to death by the icy gaze he received.

      « That is an internal matter, » GrandMaster Saturn assured him, while staring down at the bug that dared think it anything except that.

      The Commodore nodded. « Of course. You haven’t heard of the Psychic Rumble Soldiers? I think ‘Psychic’ is the right word, they may have meant ‘Sidekick’ from their English pronunciation. »

      Saturn’s brow furrowed as she glared at him. « No, I’ve never heard of them. »

      « Must be a different Sentai Association then, as they are named for colors, but it’s the same structure: Princess and bodyguard. How did you all survive the encounter with Beryl? As I understand it, our Outers stayed clear of the battle, and the Inners were killed, but are recovering their Senshi status one by one. Sailor V is a perfect example. She knows she is a Sailor-suited Defender of Love and Justice, but doesn’t know of her princess, yet. »

      Finally got a reaction, you just pale at Beryl’s name, and practically became alabaster as I continued, he thought as Saturn struggled to continue the duel.

      « We all faced Beryl, » Saturn stammered, realized what she’d done, and recovered, « We prevailed. »

      « If you save the Empire, then today is a good day to die. »

      « Exactly, » Saturn said, realizing he finally understood.

      « That’s why Imperial Japan lost. ‘You make the other poor dumb bastard die for his country,’ that’s the creed of the people who won. It’s always easier to die for an ideal, than to live for one, or with one. »

      I’ve got her off-balance, now make the offer again, he thought.

      « You can still come to an accommodation. You’ve seen what we face. I’ve seen the politicians and the Cabinet are always heart-breakingly eager to do anything that gets them invited to fancy parties. And you could throw a Hell of a party with this decor and your attendants. »

      Saturn snorted despite herself, then regained her closed off expression. « You have our terms. »

      « And you have 30% fatalities of your total strength, and another 15% serious casualties just in this room. This is not the wisest time to press the letter of your agenda, when instead you could advance the spirit, and patience will grant you all you truly need. »

      « I will so inform the Queen when she awakens, » Saturn said, « In the meantime, I offer five of our walking wounded, as hostage for your two medics. They will come to no harm. »

      « Thank you, » he replied and bowed, « Your word is sufficient. »

      Besides, your word may be more binding than the lives of your troops, he thought, My men knew it was a suicide mission to come here, he didn’t add aloud.

      It isn’t being hogtied that I mind, so much as the purple-haired girl’s `amusing` idea of where to put the ropes and especially the knots, Makoto thought as she lay perfectly still.

      « Lightning Lass lay still and quiet now? » Makoto’s cheerful captor asked in a cute sing-song, « Dragon call tell Shampoo look out for Lightning Lass, then warn that ‘ole’ Pervert is to lead attack on bad lizards. Shampoo decide to show Lightning Lass help she could have asked for instead of dying. »

      Dying?! Makoto thought fearfully, as she squirmed, then froze, Is she going to kill me? What is she talking about?

      « Capturing children learning about their heritage is unacceptable, » a furious grandfatherly voice came from the forest, « To free all silky darlings everywhere, you will be punished! »

      « Shampoo pretty sure those not the words Dragon tell him to use, » the bubbly girl said thoughtfully, « So why Lightning Lass go all alone to get killed, and break Raccoon’s stony heart, when she could have Shampoo, and Spatula Girl, and yuck ole’ Pervert, and stupid Mousse, even Panda-man come help? »

      Makoto twisted to look at the girl. You expect me to answer while gagged? Makoto wanted to shout at her.

      « Lightning Dragon Escape Clause! » the grandfatherly voice shouted.

      « Oh, you see how good Shampoo is! » the girl jumped up as an odd explosion threw the school kids and their chaperones into the air, and away from the shrine.

      No! Makoto mumbled and tried to free herself. Then she crossed her eyes and lay very still to keep the ropes from rubbing against her, as the girl raced around, plucking flying kids and teachers out of the air, as if it were a contest. Makoto stared in amazement as the girl leapt and danced, catching everyone and setting them safely on the ground.

      « Ay! Ay! Is Neko-chan special technique! » the girl cried happily as she spun once more, and bowed to the rescued people.

      Makoto also noted every one of the teachers rescued were holding down their skirts, or holding up their pants.

      « Oh, side effect. Soldiers have more underwear. Technique not perfect yet. » She got the kids running towards the soldiers, who’d revealed themselves from their hiding places. Makoto goggled at how she’d been completely surrounded by so many men. The teachers hobbled over, at a more sedate pace. « Is pervert doing, » the girl sighed and tugged on one of the ropes.

      The whole binding practically disintegrated! Makoto thought as she pulled the gag off.

      « How did you do all this? »

      « Raccoon teach rope trick, very perverted, but Raccoon weird that way. You really stupid let husband like that get away, you truly stupid you drive away, » the girl said with a frown.

      « What are you talking about?! » Makoto demanded.

      Shampoo sighed, « Is simple. » She ticked the points off on her fingers. « Lightning Lass fight monsters. Raccoon made to fight monsters. Raccoon always study, study, study more, study, teach, think, more teach. So Raccoon can teach Lightning Lass how better to fight monsters. Last, Lightning Lass and Raccoon mesh. Then, when big fight, does Lightning Lass call Raccoon? No. Stupid Lightning Lass. »

      « What and who are you talking about? » Makoto demanded, « I’ve never been a Senshi before! »

      Shampoo giggled at that, and slipped through the underbrush.

      « I’ve never . . .  » Makoto said to the empty air, even the soldiers had disappeared.

      That dream, the sleeves covered in blood. Now I know where I saw them before. They were like Princess Jupiter’s costume. So I was Sailor Jupiter? Wouldn’t I remember? She dropped that thought and looked at the temple proper, where a well-dressed man confronted one of the street toughs who had been holding the captives. Our newcomer doesn’t look happy. If fact, he looks downright pissed with those toughs, and they look scared of him.

      Captain Tachibana stuck his head in the Commo tent, « Commodore, they let our troops go, and those two would like to load up and take about thirty other medics and go back. »

      « Have them meet me in my office. Round up the supplies and the men, all volunteers, » the commodore replied as he headed for his office. He paused at the open area near the ‘Special Weapons’ tent and watched Mariko and several fuku-clad girls, trying to intervene in a screaming match between Asuka and Kodachi. « Remember, Justice and Love conquers all, » he called to them, before beating a hasty retreat.

      That should disconcert them enough for Mariko to do her job, he thought, Professor Tomoe must be headed back to Tokyo to get his girls resituated. So no Makoto, Hotaru or Kiima to defuse things, I wonder if those girls realize how powerful their influence on my ‘brain trust’ is? I also wonder where the Princess . . . I know exactly where Ami and Princess Mercury are: trying to volunteer.

      He was wrong, the Princess and Doctor Mizuno were with the medics, sitting in his office. « Doctor, Highness, gentlemen. » He bowed to each in turn. The others retook their seats as he continued, « What is the situation? »

      « Medically, whatever they’re doing, sir, it isn’t working. I saw a half-dozen girls turn into those crystal things. Their wounds weren’t that severe. That’s why I was hoping Doctor Mizuno could accompany us. »

      « I’m not afraid to go, » the doctor said.

      « If you go, and they don’t release you, we come in shooting. Are you prepared to accept responsibility for that? » the Commodore asked.

      The doctor paled, then nodded. « Yes. »

      « What do you need? »

      « Sailor Saturn and Princess Pluto, » Doctor Mizuno said, « And that other healer. I’m not too proud to admit modern medicine may not solve a magical problem. They have the power. »

      « I’m reticent about sending any of the Princesses back there, and Sailor Saturn is similarly unavailable. Davis-san is currently unavailable as well. Modern medicine is all we have at the moment. »

      « Your daughter seems an expert in the folklore of this, some kind of chi energy, » Doctor Mizuno said.

      I’d hoped to debrief these officers on the military aspect of this. Evidently, they’re of the opinion that this energy has no military aspect as this moment. I’ll let that rest.

      « I do know a man, a Doctor Ono Tofu, he should be available. I’ll arrange for both of them to meet you there. » He glanced at the surprised doctor. « Why are you sitting there? You’re the best qualified to gather the equipment. I’d trust my men with combat wounds, but you’ll need diagnostic gear they may not be familiar with. I’ll have a diesel truck sent to take the supplies and equipment. »

      The Doctor stood, bowed and took her leave.

      The Princess followed her.

      « Now that the humanitarian aid has been dealt with, let us turn to military intelligence, » the Commodore said.

      « Again, » Kodachi said tiredly, as she watched the Psychic Rumble Soldiers go through their combat routine again.

      They are worse than my brother reported the Senshi were. If they fail to match even that standard, I shall rue my desire to take them on as trainees.

      « Do any of you know your right foot from your left? » she managed as politely as she could manage after two hours of barely coherent stumbling around by the trainees.

      I know I shall ever rue this request, Kodachi thought.

      « Asuka? » she asked the `training dummy` who’d volunteered to ‘help’.

      Asuka stomped her right foot, then her left, causing all the PRS’s to jump back. « How many of these ‘Crimson Pineapples’ were there? » Asuka asked.

      « The soldiers reported pieces enough to assemble three dozen, » Kodachi reported, as the PRS shivered at the tone.

      « And Tate wiped them out in about 2 minutes? I think the power and skill levels were equivalent, » Asuka opined, « Maybe you should let the military trainers send them through some basic training. I’m willing to restart the time of our bet, to recommence the count after they’ve received that training. »

      « How utterly magnanimous of you, » Kodachi replied dryly.

      You are just loving this idiotic scenario, aren’t you? Kodachi wanted to ask her erstwhile ally.

      « Ten minutes’ break, » she said instead and turned to confront Asuka, « The situation requires a . . . different resolution, » she admitted.

      « They’re inept scrubs too terrified of their own powers to use them properly, » Asuka replied, « That is clear enough. Try making them operate unpowered and see where you can go from there. » Asuka stood and stretched. « I still think you’re nuts about mounting coaxial rocket batteries on the tank. One errant round and the whole thing goes up. »

      « Is your dual gun turret design better? The first shot firepower is less than a third of my design’s. The point of a weapon is to destroy the enemy, doing so with the first shot is the ideal, and the problem of harmonizing the two guns on firing remains, unless your target is as wide as the turret. »

      « You are assuming that the first shot will do the job. I don’t make that assumption, » Asuka replied, « I have considered the possibility of a one-shot kill. »

      « Yes, what were you thinking by modifying the masing chamber to accept three of the firing cavities simultaneously? The secondary gamma radiation would vaporize the gun, if not the turret, if not the entire tank itself. Firing both weapons so overcharged would guarantee the destruction of the turret. That’s all ignoring the effect on the crew. »

      « You said it yourself, one-shot firepower. Don’t forget that the weapons can be fired remotely. »

      « Even behind 15 meters of lead-salted concrete, the crew within 200 meters would be slain. Your one-shot wonder is nothing more than a suicide overload, and will not generate as much damage as both rocket pods and the main gun firing together. »

      « Except the gun will fire and the bolt will be over, before the rockets hit, if the range is over 5000 meters. If harmonizing the guns is a problem, synchronizing the rockets’ flight time and beam duration to allow both to hit at the same time is an even more difficult operation. My way, you can have tremendous one-shot firepower without more complicated –  »

      « Complicated! » Kodachi yelled at her, « The autoloading feed system cannot be any less complicated, especially with the synchronizing gear to allow two simultaneous reloads, rather than sequential. You dare accuse me of overcomplication! Your design is more what I’d expect from this Washu person! Weapons have to be used and serviced by well-trained peasants! Your love of complications that do not enhance the utility to the common soldier will doom our – »

      Tatewaki tossed a tear gas grenade between them, before the pair could again come to blows. To the stunned SPs and the PRS he explained, « There are some battles even the staunchest warrior best avoids. »

      « Commodore, whatever they thought they were doing, clearly hasn’t worked. Maybe there’s a minimum number and they thought they’d collect new people, and not lose any. »

      Takarada nodded, both agreeing and signaling the soldier to continue.

      « The injuries we saw, and treated, shouldn’t have caused deaths in those who reverted to crystals. And every time we saw it, the GrandMaster was standing there. She didn’t look like she was blaming us, more like she was expecting the reversion. What concerns me is they may be in a death spiral. The more they lose, the faster they lose the rest. »

      « What about the possibility they had a finite energy source? They need the worship of others to sustain themselves. Similar to what we’ve seen in the youma, » the other medic offered.

      All this confirms my earlier observations, the commodore thought, But no proof I’m right or wrong.

      « So you are certain NeoSerenity is not the real power? »

      « Absolutely, » one ranger-medic said, the other agreed, « The arrogance displayed in your first meeting, and their unwillingness to accept help, cannot be reconciled with NeoSerenity exhausting herself to help others. As well as how distant she was from the three princesses with us. The original Sailor Moon was much closer to Sailors Mercury and Jupiter than this one is to the corresponding Princesses. »

      Takarada nodded. « Very good, gentlemen. You can volunteer to go back, or you can rest here for a few hours, and then go back with the reliefs. »

      The men exchanged glances. « A shower and a good meal are all we need, Commodore. » The man’s expression froze. « I don’t remember any of them eating or drinking anything when we were there. Not so much as a cup of tea or a sweet bun. That makes no sense, unless they lived off something else. That’s not a pleasant thought. »

      « Agreed, » the Commodore said, « Get your showers and food. I’ll let the eggheads deal with the parabiology. » The men stood, saluted and left. « This can’t get any worse. »

      Assemblyman Hino looked over the agreement, and the information the diplomat had provided. « How fortunate the military already has a bureau to look into the Senshi, and their activities. I’m certain safeguarding the princesses can be added to their mandate. » He smiled, and received a smile in return. « I am curious why they ran away from home. »

      « Young love. When one has starships, one runs further than when one must board a train. »

      « I’m sure you’ll have no trouble convincing them to return to Jurai, Kagato-san. »

      « With your help, I’m sure I’ll have no problems. »

      « I’d say the possibility of trade with other starfaring nations is well worth our cooperation, » Assemblyman Hino said as he considered his place in history.

      « You hurt children, little ones who should not be harmed at all! » the gnome shouted as he drew from his gi, a tape-wrapped bowling with a burning fuse.

      Before he could make a warcry, the odd street tough blasted the gnome with an energy bolt, detonating the bomb he carried, and hurling the scorched form into the woods.

      Shampoo smiled. « So old –  »

      « NO! » Lightning Lass screamed in fury and horror.

      Shampoo tried to reassure her, « Old man be – »

      « Jupiter Stellar Power Make-Up! » the girl’s shout interrupted Shampoo again.

      Suddenly, Shampoo faced one of the Senshi. About time! Shampoo thought, Why’s she so angry? They couldn’t have hurt the old pervert, we couldn’t be that lucky!

      « You threatened innocent children! You slew one whose only crime was trying to protect them! You will be punished! »

      Not as good as the rabbit’s, Shampoo thought of the passionate Senshi, But quite intimidating.

      « JUPITER SUPREME THUNDER DRAGON! » The dragon-like bolt of lightning formed and raced towards both men, it appeared to eat them once it arrived. The others scattered in terror, in all directions.

      Lightning Lass advanced at a run, intent on finishing off any survivors. Shampoo jogged along behind. The Senshi looked stunned that both men were still there, and that the better dressed one was leaning over the street tough, and pulled a dagger out of the now-dead tough’s back. The well-dressed man was hardly singed.

      « Thank you for the distraction, » he said as he tipped his hat, « I understand what he sees in you. » The man vanished, leaving behind a golden armband that appeared to be two serpents coiling back and forth, and biting each other’s tails.

      Shampoo was stunned, as was Lightning Lass. « How is he not all ashes? » Shampoo asked, « And how other man not hurt at all? »

      Lightning Lass shook her head, then dashed into the woods.

      Shampoo shook her head at the girl’s foolishness, and followed her. « This much fun, but as much confusion. »

      Lightning Lass ran in practically a straight line, jumping over boulders and shrubs and only dodging the largest trees. She avoided the clearly visible foot trails, advancing in a straight line to her target. She finally arrived at her goal, the slightly charred form of Happosai.

      For once, the girl showed proper care as she cautiously circled the pervert Grandmaster.

      « He’s waking! » Shampoo warned as she realized Happosai was stirring.

      « Preetttyy Laaddyy. » The gnome reached up slowly.

      Shampoo’s jaw dropped as Lightning Lass scooped up Happosai, hugging him tightly to her breast and danced around joyously singing, « You’re all right! You’re all right! You didn’t die! »

      Shampoo reached up and close her mouth, shook her head violently, and opened her eyes, to see the same scene she’d closed them on. Happosai is going to spoil it, she assured herself that reality hadn’t come completely unhinged, Yep, there he goes.

      The Senshi felt the questing hands, and held the old pervert at arm’s-length. « Oh, I’m sorry. I must have been smothering you. »

      « For enthusiasm like that, I can survive a little smothering, » the slightly dazed Master said, « Good job with the kids. »

      Lightning Lass placed his head on her shoulder, and again hugged him tightly to her. She smiled contentedly, and the evil gnome seemed too lost in bliss to spoil the moment. Shampoo could only stare and wonder at the infinite perversity of the universe, and the insanity of whomever had created it.

      « No one believe this, » Shampoo muttered as she continued to stare.

      « Are you all right? » Lightning Lass asked her.

      Shampoo smiled, waved and reassured her, « Shampoo just gone crazy, you two have fun. » She waited a few more minutes for Happosai and the universe to return to normal.

      They did, as the old pervert’s hand pressed firmly on the Senshi’s chest bow.

      « I apologize again, » the girl said as she pulled the gnome away from her, « You must have other things to do, but I just finished my first mission, and none of the innocents were hurt. » She hugged the little man tightly to her chest again. « I’m so happy! »

      Shampoo couldn’t make out Happosai’s muffled response, because the sky dropped in front of her to distract her from the sneak attack the ground made by reaching up to slam into her back.

      « Shampoo! » Lightning Lass rushed to her side, and set Happosai aside for a moment. The little pervert didn’t take to his heels, for the moment. « Are you okay? »

      « Shampoo not in Kansai anymore, » Shampoo said dreamily, « Happosai . . . impossible. »

      « She’s just a bit distracted by our magnificence, » Shampoo heard Happosai say.

      « Master . . . Happosai, do you take students? I’m sure you’ll find my sisters as enthusiastic as I am. »

      Shampoo decided to go to sleep, until the universe quit trying to wreck her brain.

      The feeling of cold air rushing past while silk sheets surrounded and warmed her, brought Shampoo around. She felt the warm body and the warm spirt practically enclosing her. She opened her eyes to see Lightning Lass’s grinning expression and the sky flashing by.

      She isn’t walking, Shampoo thought.

      « Roof hop? » she asked as she moved to look down.

      « Flying, that wonderful old man taught me a trick. I’m just glad my boots are water-tight. »

      Shampoo glanced down and saw a small, dark thunderstorm surrounding Lightning Lass’s feet, and the city moving past far below. « You walk on cloud? » Shampoo asked.

      « Of course. » Lightning Lass grinned. « I didn’t think I could either. But it’s easy once you know the trick. Kiima will be so jealous! »

      Shampoo only nodded and snuggled back into her silken cocoon, into the warmth holding her tight, and let herself fall into a blissful slumber. « If I butterfly dreaming of being Shampoo, » she said, « I visit too many too too strange flowers lately. »

      So this is what Raccoon, and that evil old pervert felt in her arms. No wonder Happosai behaved, she thought.

      Happosai skipped through the alleyway heading home. I feel marvelous, he thought as he traveled, letting his thought wander aimlessly, That girl was so . . . and so accommodating, and energetic! If her sisters are anything like her . . . Happosai cackled happily, and tried to lose himself in visions of groping and lechery. Only the Senshi’s smiling face and warmhearted eagerness kept intruding.

      He shook his head. « I must be getting old. I did rescue those kids, but I also got these . . .  » He patted his gi to locate the silky darlings he’d stolen from the kids’ teachers. A more thorough search confirmed it. « I can’t believe it, seduced by a pretty face and a warm . . . smile. I left them behind. Well, Happi old boy, you’ll just have to go back and get them! At least I remember where I stashed them. » He turned around, firm in purpose, but when he looked back on the alley he’d been walking through, he felt as if the world had dropped into focus, revealing a horrible truth. « It’s impossible. I can’t believe my eyes! »

      Like dozens of tiny, colorful flags, shimmering and dancing in the gentle breeze, entire shoals of silky darlings hung out to dry in the afternoon sun. Happosai was aghast. « I didn’t even notice them! » he shouted in horror. Then he realized something else was missing. « They aren’t calling to me, » he thought aloud, « How can that . . . the Senshi! She did this! » His brief anger faded. « She did it without knowing. I did it, when she held me and I absorbed some of her energy. »

      Resolution came instantly. « That’s it! I’ll just avoid her! And in a few days I’ll . . .  »

      Replaced by desperation. « I told her where she could find me. A training trip, a long one with those two ingrates and I’ll – »

      He suddenly realized he didn’t want to be without what he was feeling now. « NO! » the old pervert screamed in hopeless protest.

      The ancient eyes watched the girls arrive at the Neko-chan. So, the outcast’s friend’s friend has made another friend. How sweet. Too bad for her, if she gets in my way, the ancient Amazon thought, and smiled broughtly, I will use her to send that arrogant child a clear message. He can’t defend those closest to him against an expert. She smiled at what she’d do to the once Amazon, and her brightly clad ally.

      Rei was safely asleep, alone in the tent Jeff had assembled for her. He’d refused both food and shelter from the house, and while Rei had partaken the former, she avoided the later. Who knows what they do in their sleep, she’d thought at the time. Now she woke. The presence of the Oni has grown strong. Either it has increased its strength, or it is very close and active, she thought as she gripped the bow that rested beside her bed, I can localize it well enough to aim.

      « Jeffery-chan, » came the soft call outside the tent, « I have something in the dojo I need help with. »

      « Why not the others? » Jeff asked warily.

      « Do you think any of the others would stay awake to help me? » came the tart reply, « They all have important things to do in the morning, too important to help me tonight. »

      That’s Kasumi, Rei thought, I should . . . no, that’s the Oni, not Kasumi. I should follow by stealth, and observe. Jeff can more than take care of himself.

      She waited until the soft footfalls receded, then she slipped out of the tent as Sailor Mars, and crept towards the dojo. The interior was lit by a dozen candles, giving a soft, omnidirectional light. In the middle of the dojo was a pillow atop a small pile of quilts.

      « Tendo-san, I appreciate the effort, » Jeff said and bowed to Kasumi, « Perhaps Rei-san might want to make use of this, but I don’t sleep much. »

      « Oh, » Kasumi giggled as she let her dress slide to the floor, « It’s not for sleeping. »

      Rei’s mouth went dry. I knew she was . . . beautiful, but . . . she thought as she watched the girl turn slightly this way and that. Even in her underwear, she somehow managed an alluring innocence.

      « You really should get some undergarments that fit properly, those must be very uncomfortable, being too small. »

      Rei caught herself before her face hit the ground. Are you STUPID?! she wanted to shout at him, The girl is practically begging to . . . no, it’s the Oni! Idiot, and he knows that. Stupid Sailor Mars. Spirits and ancestors, I transform and lose 100 IQ points!

      Jeff knelt beside the quilts, setting the pillow aside and lifting the top invitingly. « There’s one thing I have to say. »

      Kasumi gasped eagerly, and knelt across from him. « Yes? » she asked with her eyes shining.

      He threw the quilt over her head and shouted, « FIRE! FIRE! FIRE IN THE DOJO! » as he picked her up and ran into the house screaming, « Fire! Fire in the dojo! »

      Rei extinguished all the candles with a gesture as she scooped up the dress and ran after him into the awakening household.

      He ran straight into the furo and there was a tremendous splash. Rei tossed the dress in at Jeff and slammed the door to the furo. Moments later, Soun arrived first, wide-eyed and panicky. « Go make sure the fire is out! Go! » Rei ordered, the priest followed Soun to the dojo.

      Akane arrived next, « What were they – ? »

      « Go get the first aid kit! Your sister needs it! » when Akane didn’t move Rei shouted in her face, « What?! You want her burned and scarred? You haven’t done enough to her already?! Get out of my sight. » She shoved Akane at the stairs to her room. « Ryoga, burn kit now! Right! Now! » Rei turned to the next arrivals. « Genma, Nodoka, make sure the fire didn’t spread to the house or the grounds! Move! »

      « So, the old man would beard us in our lair. » The cloaked figure stepped into the spotlight.

      Commodore Takarada looked around the bare chamber that had replaced his quarters, and the occasional spotlight illuminating a patch of ground, stretching on into infinity, and only two of them occupied. Just me and you, picking a fight you don’t have to win. Stupid, he thought as he braced himself, I’m asleep n my quarters, this is a dream, or something like it.

      « I –  »

      I don’t have to tell you anything! he realized, So this is what the Meliorist was training me for.

      « You can’t resist, » the cloaked figure told him, trying and failing to disguise her voice as male, « Eventually you will weaken. You aren’t as good as I am. »

      « Is that why you let all those lesser Senshi die? » Takarada asked, « Because you are so good, you could manage those energy flows correctly? »

      « Silence, I am asking the questions. »

      « You aren’t strong enough to hold them. You aren’t wise enough to accept the help we’ve been practically begging you to take. You aren’t strong enough or wise enough to hold me. How many of the wounded will die as a result of this contest? How many of the senior Senshi? Maybe even the Queen herself. »

      « I said silence! » The figure tried to lunge at the Commodore, but he was standing in a different lighted area when the figure passed through where he had been.

      « Why don’t you compromise? You assume that by supplanting this world’s Senshi, you can tap into their power source here, but it doesn’t work like that. »

      « How would you know? » the figure demanded.

      « I don’t approve of my younger daughter’s profession, but she is a thorough researcher. Magic often follows its own rules, but they generally stay consistent. »

      « You can’t stop us, this will be our world again. »

      « It never was yours in the first place, and you can’t force it to be. You can only ask to be part of it. We have experts. We can help you, if you’ll let us. »

      « Be enslaved by the likes of you? » the voice dripped with contempt.

      « Not slaves, allies, partners, » the Commodore countered.

      Why does this have to be master/slave, and not equals? he wondered.

      « Without your respect, and your worship? Why would we bother? »

      The Commodore felt pressure on his mind, trying to force him to his knees, if not a full prostration. He held on, holding firm to his image of himself. So this is the combat the Meliorist was preparing me for. This is why the odd training, he thought as the pressure ratchetted up, This is mental combat, but I feel it as a physical contest.

      « You have to fall eventually. You are only a half-trained savage, with no understanding of our strengths, our abilities, or our responsibilities. »

      « On the contrary, » the Commodore politely explained as he held his ground, « The concept is well-known, and you don’t know how skilled my instructors have been. I’m no one’s easy prey. »

      « We shall see. »

      He let the power wash over him. Like a dressing down by a particularly inept superior. You smile and endure, knowing yours will be the victory.

      « You can’t win, » the figure taunted, missing the other figure moving from shadow to shadow towards her.

      I’ve won by remaining on my feet another moment, he didn’t tell his foe, All I have to do is not fight back with all my strength, and I win, he thought as he felt another wave wash over him, his opponent was apparently straining with all her might, to no avail.

      « Chiedere scusa, signorina. » A man wearing a WW2-era Italian military uniform stepped up behind her, and shot her in the butt with his sidearm.

      The woman screamed and the pressure vanished, then the woman vanished.

      « Mi perdoni for interrupt, Commodoro, » the man said in highly accented Japanese, « But . . .  » He glanced around nervously. « I’m not supposed to be here, but I must ask totemo, totemo, muy totemo enorme favor from you. »

      « What is your very, very, very enormous favor? » the Commodore asked as he relaxed from the strain he’d been under.

      « The Stars are Right, that is only a line from a book, to you, but it means more. Mi patron will not like I tell you this, but, he has a plan, proud, brave Asuka too. Very rischioso – risky. » The officer shrugged, « I see no other way. »

      « What is their plan? » the Commodore asked.

      The man sighed again, and explained.

      Commodore Takarada woke in his quarters, pulled his uniform jacket over his nightshirt, and headed straight for the canteen. Bright lights and a few people, he thought as he sat and gripped the tea cup in his hands, I’d better be careful I don’t break it.

      He relaxed his grip and stared at the cup. « They can’t be willing to do that, they just can’t. »

      He sighed. But do I have the right to stop them? Would it even be a good idea?

      « I wish I knew. »

      Rei watched the others rush around at her order, while she remained fixed in front of the bathroom’s door. Now it is my turn, she thought as she took the burn kit from Ryoga, and entered the bathroom, closing and locking the door behind her, Do I go in as the Senshi of Fire, or as the priestess?

      Jeff stood from beside the furo where he’d been holding Kasumi’s hands. He stepped up beside Rei and whispered, « She’s going to need someone to talk to, and confide in, someone preferably female. »

      « Why? » Rei whispered back, and crossed her arms across her chest, « You seem to have everything completely under control, » she added as sarcastically as she could.

      « Because that demon can’t create anything that isn’t already within you. »

      Rei scowled. « Oh, and I suppose you’re just so irresistible, she couldn’t possibly keep her hands off you? » Rei whispered harshly.

      « No. I’m so unclean and honor-destroying, I’m perfect for her true purpose. I’m an enemy of her family, and they are convinced I’m Burakumin, as well as gaijin. »

      Rei was about to reply, when she made the connection. « Oh. »

      « Yeah. ‘Oh.’ Now you see? »

      Rei nodded. « So the pigeons do nothing, and I get the heavy lifting, again? »

      « Welcome to the club. » Jeff patted her shoulder. « Am I really irresistible? »

      Rei slapped the back of his head, and he chuckled at her frown as he went through the bathroom door. There was the sound of the hamper sliding across the floor to block the way into the furo proper, before the bathroom door opened, closed and locked behind Jeff.

      Rei looked at her charge who’d climbed out of the furo to just stand there looking ashamed. You wanted to be even more shameful, Rei thought, Maybe enough to be thrown out. Kasumi was still draped in the sodden quilt, her hair plastered to her body. Even looking like a drown rat, she’s still beautiful, Rei thought then stomped all over her jealousy. She released the clasp of Kasumi’s bra, and grabbed a large towel and began drying the girl off. I wonder . . . that would be the perfect revenge, on all of them, Jeff included, she thought as she grinned, But that’s for later.

      Kasumi turned around, while they were nearly the same height, the power of the older girl’s gaze made her seem much larger. « Am I . . . kawaii? Am I pretty? »

      Rei could only nod.

      « Then . . . why? Wasn’t I . . . »

      « Oh, Kasumi-chan, » Rei wrapped the towel around her and hugged her tightly. She knelt down as Kasumi collapsed, and began sobbing. Rei felt the wet arms surround her and the girl shaking with her pent up emotions boiling out.

      After a time, the girl quieted. « I apologize, Rei-san. I am – not at my best. »

      « What better time to talk to a priestess? » Rei replied, unsure of the best tactic to use.

      Kasumi stood, wrapped her hair in one towel, and her body in another, then found a dry spot for Rei and her to sit side-by-side. The girl stared at Rei.

      And Rei tried to keep her equilibrium through the intensity of that stare. I’ve seen demons who didn’t look as hungry, as needy as that, Rei thought as the girl tried to peer into her soul, and see some truth she needed. Rei loosened the towel around Kasumi’s hair and began drying it.

      « I’m a demon, you know. »

      « And I’m a priestess, with something much nastier than a demon at my beck and call, » Rei replied evenly as she rubbed and squeezed the water out of Kasumi’s hair, « Then there’s Raccoon out there too. »

      The girl made a cough that might have been a stifled laugh.

      « You’re a demon, you’re allowed to laugh, and if anyone asks. I’ll tell them it was a failed exorcism, » Rei said, « When was the last time you went out on a date? Let a boy, or a girl, take you dancing, or out for ice cream, or just for a quiet walk? Both of you just holding hands, not saying anything. Letting the moment and the natural beauty do all the talking that was necessary? » Rei made herself sound wistful, to elicit the question.

      « Are we talking about me, or you? »

      « I’ve been on dates, I’ve been to dances and parties, and I’ve simply sat with a nice boy and listened to the wind blow. Have you? »

      Kasumi slumped, tears were a definite possibility.

      I’ve seen your figure, and how you keep this house, Rei thought, And if what Jeff intimated about the demon is correct, you’d be a tiger in the bedroom. So why aren’t you already married, or at least have a steady suitor?

      « You took over the family when your mother died, but Akane’s old enough, and needs to know the skills of a housewife. She needs to learn, and you and Mirei can teach her. Both Nodoka and Mirei are here, you too should learn to be a woman, before becoming a housewife to someone. »

      « After father was cured, you mean. Akane and Nabiki were too young to really remember, » Kasumi said.

      « Cured? » Rei asked.

      « It was why I rejected Ranma, » Kasumi raised her head, and explained, « You see, we never really had a mother. Father took a training trip to Jusenkyo, fell into the spring of the drown girl, and so with hot water, returned to his natural form, and with cold became our mother. He realized with his new `wife`, he could get out from under his mother’s and his master’s control. So Sonya was born. He even impregnated her – himself – so they couldn’t say he wasn’t a dutiful son. I realized that, when Akane and Nabiki were growing up. I never saw father and mother together. »

      Kasumi looked at Rei, who was trying not to run screaming from the room. I’ve met the gods, she thought, I can handle this too! Just sit and smile, keep drying her hair. That’s it.

      « Mother was strong and commanding, Mother was . . . and father wasn’t. When he suddenly was cured, all the strength left him. He’d put too much of himself in Sonya, and when she `died`, he couldn’t get it back. When Ranma arrived, with the exact same curse, I couldn’t live a lie like that. Everyone would think I had a mistress, as well as a husband, and I knew she wouldn’t need me to have children. I’d only keep the house, cook the meals, and raise his and her children. » Kasumi wrapped Rei in a desperate hug. « I wanted so much more than that! Am I a terrible, selfish person? »

      « No Kasumi-chan,. Of course not, » Rei told her, as she sought a way back to the shores of sanity.

Sailor Jupiter II 10 – Can’t You Feel the Fears I’m Feelin’ Today?

      « Help me! Please! » the Scholarly Dragon heard the cry, and stared into the darkness.

      That’s not Sasami’s voice, he thought, Something pursues her through her dreams, and now another falls victim. This is no accident, and no coincidence. He tried to remember if he had heard this girl’s voice in the cries he’d been hearing more and more frequently. Yes. She flees, but not by conventional means. The dragon shifted. There are allies to call. I can leave these to the boy’s servants. But this I’ll deal with myself.

      « This way, » he called, trying to sound pleasant, « Safe harbor lies this way. »

      Now all I can do is wait.

      « I can’t see you!! »

      « Nor can your pursuer, » he replied, adding a compulsion to allow her to find him, « Come of your own free will, or turn back. »

      « He’ll catch me! »

      « Then remain silent, and let your instincts guide you. You know the ways, just let yourself feel them. »

      « I don’t understand. »

      « Say nothing, do you understand that? Joy. Pick no direction, let your spirit find the way. Your eyes and mind can trick you. Keep silence on your lips and in your mind, and you’ll find safe harbor that much sooner. »

      She navigates through both time and dreams, he thought as he analyzed her trail, What manner of creature would allow their young to make such a perilous crossing unescorted?

      He chuckled at her grumbling, but she approached. So what follows? And is it just a dream, or the precursor of things to come? he wondered and waited.

      « This is a seriously screwed up family, » Rei hissed as she sat next to Jeff and tried to concentrate on the stillness of the koi pond and the fish within. Only then did she notice the sword hilt sticking out of his chest.

      « Miss Tendo seemed uncertain what to do after she killed me, other than terrified screaming of course, » he explained and pulled the blade out, « Cheap steel, rotten forging technique. Too much sulphur and beryllium. » He snapped the blade and tossed it aside. « Let me guess, Akane and Ranma are really siblings. Nodoka is actually Kasumi and Nabiki’s mother, uh, am I getting close? »

      She nodded as she stared at him. « Jusenkyo, Soun has Ranma’s curse, » Rei said, « What are you getting at? »

      « The demon can’t change the inherent properties of a person. Kasumi is a bit of an imp, but she’s too polite to use it on these dimwits. So she plays the game of being {‘Gracey} Allen’ stupid. Besides, it’s no fun to defeat someone, who’ll never understand that you have. » He extended his hands to the sky. « But suddenly, the gods gift her with all these people she can `play` with. She didn’t insult you, or your job, or your family? »

      Rei shook her head.

      « Then it was to see if she could frighten you away, evidently she couldn’t. I assume you made sympathetic noises, talked about her and what she needed and felt? »

      Rei’s outrage broke through her shock. « What about her feeling for you? » Rei demanded.

      Not that I’m uncomfortable being around her, but leaving that demon in there offends me, Rei thought as Jeff shrugged.

      « You said it yourself. Baring any unusual actions, I’m not in her normal interest zone. She’s still a traditional Japanese housewife. That’s not what I’m interested in being, a traditional Japanese salaryman. A cog in greater MITI. »

      Rei nodded. I don’t want to be a ‘traditional housewife’ either, just a traditional priestess. From the very oldest tradition. Rei hid her smirk at that.

      « Will you be all right out here? I don’t think she should be alone. »

      « I’ll be fine. Just remember, she’s been treated – mistreated – as a kitchen appliance and cleaning robot for so long, any show of affection directed at her will provoke a strong response. That demon isn’t very strong, no stronger than a liter of Tequila taken on an empty stomach. It allows the repressed aspects of a personality out to play. So whatever she does, it won’t be malicious, but it may be surprising, even frightening. She won’t hurt you, but she’ll want to know just how hard she can push before she gets a response. »

      « Thanks, as a Senshi, I can handle anything . . . except the gods. »

    « Then be honest with her and yourself. And just remember, this – is – Nerima, » he whispered it and the world grew silent. The wind blew and a bird crowed.

      Rei glanced around. « I’m not even going to ask how you did that. »

      « Good, because I won’t tell you. »

      Rei walked into the Dojo and closed the door, before taking off her miko uniform and transforming into Sailor Mars. She then put her miko clothing back over her sailor suit. I’m going to leave the tiara, she thought as she walked into the house, and Kasumi’s room.

      « Kasumi-chan? » she asked at the threshold, and stepped inside.

      She’s not in the bed, she’s not hanging from the ceiling, I hope she’s not in the closet, Rei thought as she looked in each place. Then the closet door closed, trapping Rei inside.

      « I’m not bad, » came a sultry breath under her ear, « I’m just drawn to that. »

      I’m almost glad I can’t see in here, Rei thought as she marshaled her resolve, and fended off a few tickles from her unseen challenger.

      Rini ran. Silent mind, silent mind! she thought, stifling the urge to cry out, He’s coming. I can hear him. Was that what the voice meant?

      A black wall loomed up out of the darkness. She nearly slammed into it at full speed. « Ow! » she said as she banged into it hard enough to knock her back on her butt. « Mister? There’s a wall here. My instincts led me to a wall. » She stood and rubbed her injury.

      « It’s not a wall, but the difference to you is trivial. »

      « Mister! I have to get over this wall! » she told him the obvious, as she peered at the black cobblestones that seemed to comprise it, « I need to get away. »

      « You are as far as you get, child, » the floating ghost-like figure told her as it brandished its scythe, « A pleasant run, but it is over now. »

      « There is the finish line to be accounted for, » the gravelly voice came from all around.

      Both Rini and her tormentor looked around for the source.

      « Show yourself! » the ghost demanded as he pulled back his hood, to reveal the glowing skull with Black Moon symbol on his forehead.

      « Courtesy. Would including a ‘please’ have upset your entire Universe? » the gravelly voice sounded disappointed.

      Sounds like Mercury, when I didn’t pay attention to courtly manners, Rini thought.

      « It was not a request! » her tormentor informed the voice, but was looking around so rapidly, he seemed more worried than he wanted to sound, « It was a demand! »

       » ‘You will please show yourself’, is the form you desire, » the voice took on a lecturing tone, « Or ‘if it isn’t too much trouble’. »

      Rini giggled.

      A loud sigh, and the gravelly voice continued, « But I shall show myself, as if I hadn’t already. »

      The ghost vanished, replaced by the sound and wind of a close passage by a large airplane, or a small starship.

      What was that Jurain ship called? Oh yeah, Ryo-Ok-Ki, or something like that, Rini thought as she straightened up from her crouch, That’s what it almost sounded like.

      « I guess it was too much, » the gravelly voice said, « Well, he was boring. Don’t you agree? »

      « He made my life interesting, in a bad way, » Rini commented as she touched the wall.

      Why is this wall warm? And how do I get over it?

      « You are speaking what you think, at least to my ears, » the gravelly voice teased, « It is warm, because it is heated. The easiest way over would have you screaming about tentacles, so there is a stairway a short distance to your left as you face the wall. What type of tea do you like? »

      « Oh, with lots of sugar! » Rini said happily as she walked, « Will I get to see you then? Will you be at our little tea party? »

      « I had referred to blend. Chamomile, I should think. Let you sleep. You have a difficult journey ahead of you, so you’ll need rest first. As for seeing me, have you ever heard the story of the Blind Wisemen and the Elephant? »

      « If Wiseman was blind, I wouldn’t be in this mess. Why does the stairway look like a bird’s leg? »

      « A lizard’s. My sense of esthetics is unusual. My sense of aesthetics is unique. My sense of anesthetics is eunuch. »

      « Oh, like our palace guards? People call the Senshi that sometimes. »

      « I think you are teasing me, » the voice told Rini as she began to climb.

      « I have to find someone, » Rini explained as she walked past the two rows of pickets, and climbed down the stair on the other side. « Can you help me? »

      « I have arranged for people to meet you when you arrive, and I know who you search for. But she has not yet found herself, making your search fruitless. »

      « You know them, meaning they are your friends, or you’ve read news reports about them? And how do you know who they are? I haven’t told you! »

      « Ah, I forgot how nose-blind you humans are. I catch the scent of your sire and dame on you, and you wear a drop of your mother’s perfume, the one indulgence she allows herself. »

      « Puu isn’t my mother! » Rini complained.

      « My nose tells me otherwise. Whatever you say to honor your dame, you too believe otherwise. »

      Rini flopped down in one of the chairs around the small table and glared at the darkness surrounding the oasis of light. She looked at the tables, chairs, fruit bowl decoration and the tea service. « Puu isn’t my mother, » she complained as she ate one of the peaches.

      « And you have seen me, » the gravelly voice said, « Considering you just walked across my back. »

      Rini stood up and stared at the two huge yellow eyes that peered down at her. « Go ahead and scream, I have my ear plugs in. »

      Rini took the monster up on his offer.

      Rei walked out of the house and straight to the koi pond, discarding the blanket she was wrapped in, before gingerly submerging herself up to her neck in the icy water. Only the elegant loops and coils of her carefully braided and sculpted coiffure kept her hair out of the water.

      I don’t care if he sees me, she thought as Jeff approached and spread the discarded blanket wide, to shield her from view of the house.

      « Nothing perverted happened, » she snapped.

      « I was going to ask if you were all right? Taking a dip in an ice cold fish pond is new behavior for you. »

      « Physically, I’m fine; emotionally . . . would it have killed you to . . . at least cuddled with her? »

      « It wouldn’t have stopped there, and you know it. »

      Rei nodded and hung her head. « I know, I just wish . . . do you realize how lonely she is? How –  »

      « Starved for affection. That someone would give her a kind word or a compliment on her, instead of what she’s required to do? »

      « Exactly. She . . . she just wanted to – » Rei bowed her head again. « Just hold someone, just run her fingers through my hair. » Her head snapped up and she turned to face Jeff’s curious expression. « So you aren’t thinking we played out a yuri hentai scene from some anime. »

      « I wouldn’t have implied it, even if I knew you had. Her little scene to lure me to the Dojo was as much for your benefit, as for hers. The desire was for you to comfort, exorcize or otherwise interact with her. Yes, she’s lonely, and you are quite beautiful. So she wanted to spend time with another girl, one who was not her sister. Play slumber party games and maybe trade a bit of embarrassment. You embarrass her, and she you. »

      « And you figured all this out, what?! Hours ago? »

      « When you walked out of her room and into the koi pond. I guessed that the intensity and amount of affection was getting a little much for you. So I just figured it out, and I’ve been working that particular problem for months. Her sister, Nabiki, practically had a nervous breakdown when she realized she was admired and respected by so many people. We went to a charity benefit as the guests of honor, I think her brain overloaded about fifteen minutes into the dancing, when she realized how many VIPs wanted to meet her. It’s no surprise that her older sister is as starved for approval, or affirmation, as Nabiki was. I figured out my part, and danger, much earlier. If we had . . . gone through with it, none of the three of us could have escaped the district alive, even if it was fully consensual. »

      « I figured out something too. This is the punishment. You brought me here, to fix the Kasumi part of the problem, while Mirei fixed Akane, and you ran interference. That was your plan, we’ve been improvising around that plan ever since, » Rei said as she stood and stepped into the blanket he wrapped around her, « You knew I couldn’t resist, and you let me rush into an impossible, uncomfortable situation. Just like I did on my own, in the Arctic. »

      « That was not my intent. I intended to have Mirei do all this over time. I didn’t figure on the demon, or Kasumi recovering due to its possession of her. I intended to be in and out in a few hours, not a few days. »

      Rei sighed, enjoying the blanket and the arms wrapped around her. « I’m a pretty girl too, you know? »

      Jeff’s silence was her only answer.

      « You didn’t try anything on our trip, or here. Not with me. Not with Kasumi. » Rei left the ‘why?’ unspoken.

      « After you’ve been kicked in the teeth that way enough, you get a little gunshy. I thought Ma – the Senshi I had a relationship with, was different. That she could take care of herself, and that I could help, without overshadowing her as a woman. I was wrong. I was wrong about who she loved most, and that she really understood and accepted what I am. »

      « That’s my fault. »

      « Don’t take all the blame, every one of the Senshi made the same decision the same way. If any of them had decided otherwise, the group would have gone with them. They left out Tuxedo Mask and Mercury’s Knight as well, except those two crashed the party. I was trying to coordinate, while the strike was underway. We hit the Dark Kingdom proper, and destroyed the place, while you and the others hit Beryl and her army. »

      « I find it interesting that I ask a personal question, and you deftly change it to a lecture on proper military strategy. »

      « I thought it was more polite than tossing you naked into the Koi pond, » Jeff replied, « My private life is just that, private. No, I don’t pull out my pain and look at it and angst over it. I accept it as past, and go on with my life. »

      Shut yourself off from the world, so it can’t hurt you again. You are a coward, at least in that respect, Rei kept to herself.

      « And what if someone falls in love with you? » Rei asked.

      « I’ve had so many people hate me, I no longer care what other people think. If someone feels that way, I’d be decent, but I’m under no requirement to do more. »

      Coward, Rei thought, Although you’d probably intimidate anyone else. Like that girl in the restaurant. She might be a knock-around friend, but she’s too scared to ask for more, even if she thought she wanted it, Rei thought, How like me. Yuuichirou has worked at the temple for how long? And I know he’s interested, but both of us are too scared to do anything together . . . unless grandfather plays match maker again. She shivered at that thought.

      « You’re smiling, » Rei heard Kasumi’s voice, and turned to face the girl who held a wrap for her. « Checking up on him? » Kasumi asked as she put the nightgown over Rei’s head and helped her pull her arms through the sleeves. « There’s room for three, if you don’t mind sharing the floor, » Kasumi offered as Rei pulled the nightgown down. Only then did Jeff pull away the blanket.

      « Thank you, no, I was just suggesting that your family would not be gentle, if they discovered it. »

      « I put sleeping pills in the cookies that were for tomorrow morning, so you could get away. Except they ate them tonight, so they won’t wake until noon. »

      « You should have put laxatives in Genma’s –  »

      « And Auntie Nodoka’s? » Kasumi said with a giggle.

      « And oil of pepper, » Jeff agreed.

      Rei squirmed at the implications.

      « The way Genma eats, everyone would get the runs, and Genma would have a more, voiding experience. »

      « Maybe tomorrow, when I have them all out raking leaves, » Kasumi said as she deeply considered the plan.

      Isn’t it July? Well, this is Nerima, Rei thought as she transitioned into Kasumi’s embrace.

      « He is cute, » Kasumi teased her with her whisper, « I think the two of us could take him. If we don’t hurt him or Asuka-chan, he won’t really fight back hard. »

      Rei blushed furiously as the girl’s giggle and hug. « You are an imp! » Rei declared.

      « You weren’t complaining earlier, » Kasumi pouted, then laughed.

      « We required the devious shaman and his conflated believe in himself and his god, over, » Keiko said into the radio, trying to duplicate Tatewaki’s style.

      Tatewaki’s laughter came back over the radio. « He has not been available, » Tatewaki told her, « As soon as he is available, we shall dispatch him to you. Would Asuka or my dear sister serve your purposes? Over. »

      « I don’t think so, » Keiko replied, « We need a magical expert, not a scientific one. The treasures the Psychic Rumble Soldiers are a serious concern. Over. »

      « I think I have another source of help. I’ll call and send to you, over, » Tatewaki volunteered.

      « Tell him – or her – it’s a rush, over and out. » Keiko set the radio aside and looked at the large, rune-covered rocks that occupied the huge chests the soldiers had carried in. « I’m not magically inclined, and even I know those are magical. »

      The doctor nodded. « I also called an expert in. He’s, abrasive, but he knows his subject. » The doctor paused and stared at the rocks. « Do they look like they’re moving to you? »

      « They’re staying in the boxes, and those boxes are set to only accept them one way. They can’t possibly be moving, » Keiko said, then stared at the rocks, « Now that you mention it, they do look like they are moving, but that’s impossible. » She turned to the doctor. « Should we call in the Senshi? »

      « I’d rather not mix magic, » doctor said, « I have a bad feeling they’d be as lost as we are. »

      « Do you think these have something in common with our jellyfish monster? » the Keiko asked.

      « I wish it were that simple, » doctor replied, « Maybe both have the same source. I doubt that they are directly related in any way. »

      Keiko sighed. « Yes, that would make things too easy. »

      « Can you scream like that again? » the Scholarly Dragon asked playfully, « I think you cured the ear wax build up I’ve been suffering from. »

      « Y – y – yo – you’re – go – going – to – ee – eat – m – m – me! » Rini whimpered.

      « Good Heavens no! » the Dragon insisted, « You aren’t kosher. I’d have to skin you alive and roll you in sea salt, and then kidnap a rabbi, and . . . well, by the end of the process, the meat would be no good. »

      « Oh. » The girl was not relieved in the slightest.

      The huge creature sniffled. « Just cause I’m big, and black, and scaly, you think I’m a monster. I bet if I was small, and white, and fuzzy, I could tear the throats out of knights, and you’d still think I was cute! » the Dragon wailed, then hid his head under his arms and sobbed. « You mammals are so mean! You eat our eggs, then complain about how we look! WAAHHH! »

      « I’m sorry! » Rini shouted, looked around guiltily, « I didn’t know you were a vegetarian. »

      « What are you? A comedian? » the Dragon asked with an offended tone, « With these teeth, I’m a vegetarian? » He let Rini see them up close, and she nearly fainted. « Besides! What has a vegetable ever done to me? Now people who poke me with spears, ah, I take them and I . . . you have heard of a barbeque spit, haven’t you? »

      Rini nodded numbly.

      « Oh good, well before that, you feed them plenty of cherries and peaches and . . . oh, excuse me. » He pulled the half-eaten peach from her hand and the fruit bowl centerpiece off the table, and replaced it with a bowl of sliced vegetables in her hands. « Anyway, you haven’t stuck me with a spear, so you’re safe. » He could smell the little girl’s fear vanish. « Enjoy your tea. I have to arrange for safe passage to where you are going, and have a welcoming committee there, for you, and your pursuers. »

      « I thought you got him! » Rini protested.

      « He was the tracker, » the dragon explained, « They are even now closing in. Your fear and screams will draw them here. »

      « I’m sorry, » Rini apologized.

      « You misunderstand. We won’t be here, but a particularly unpleasant surprise will be. I couldn’t have arranged this delightful ambush without you. »

      « Oh, you’re welcome, » Rini said brightly, « I think. »

      « Have you ever flown before? » the dragon asked.

      « Not really, » Rini admitted.

      « Well, you hook your legs through those pickets, and hold on with both hands. When you get better, you can just hold on with your legs and fight from atop a dragon. But we’ll just be running. Ah. » He pointed to the graceful white and blue dragon approaching them. « He’s more scared of me than you were, » he whispered to the little girl, who laughed at the thought.

      « He’s big, » Rini said between giggles.

      « I’m much bigger, » he replied haughtily.

      « And much more in demand. » The white dragon bowed, changing into a virtual carbon-copy of Rini. « Lord Kuno, Scion of the House Kuno has need of ‘your August wisdom’ and probably your December and January wisdom. They found something, and won’t discuss it over the phone. »

      « Oh joy, a mystery, » the dragon said, « Still, Kuno knows enough not to call in that particular favor, unless it truly is dire. The boy may talk like a loon, but he does have a clear grasp of the events occurring in his universe. »

      « Kuno? » Rini asked, « Tatewaki – Kuno? You mean I could actually meet him? » Rini had her hands clasped, as if begging.

      « Perhaps, if you are a good girl. Stirogi. You still carry some antipathy towards the Musk? »

      « Milord, that is an understatement. »

      « Vent it on those who come at you, » the dragon told the transformed dragon, « All dragonkind expects you to do your duty. »

      « I’ll do my duty all over their corpses, » the other dragon growled.

      « I think you have a clear view of events and what is required, » he said as his tail wrapped around Rini and placed her on his back. « See, tentacle-like. Sit down, hook your legs around the pickets, grab the one ahead and the one behind, and hang on. »

      Rini did as she was told. « Anything else? »

      « Screaming, whether in terror or exuberance seems to be normal, though not required, » the dragon said as he leapt into the sky, and Rini began screaming. He saw the area Rini had marked with her terror, and the hidden dragon awaiting at the center of the web. You deserve better than your fate, confused one, he thought, Perhaps something can be arranged.

      The old bishop was in full lecture mode. « There are things you can’t conceive of, things you’d never believe and have never seen. »

      Keiko nodded, and tried to keep from looking too angry or too bored. The doctor was having more trouble.

      « The unseen world contains things you never dreamed of! » the bishop rounded on the doctor, « And you gave up your vows and joined the army? What good are they? »

      « That depends on who and what you have equipped them with, » the older man in the tweed suit said as he arrived, « And who they have as advisors. »

      « Oh, another scientific `expert` who’ll either explain it away, or turn it into New Age drivel about aliens and ancient astronauts? » the bishop thundered at the newcomer, who seemed to find it all highly amusing, « I’ve seen real miracles, and I’ve seen scoffers like you try and explain them away, while idiot politicians nod and smile and send the real experts away, to cozy up to the faker who’ll feed them easy answers. »

      « That is a truly fascinating theory about me, » the man said quietly, « Totally wrong, and virtually slanderous of Commodore Takarada, but none the less, fascinating. » The man leaned close to the bishop. « I was in the nightmares of your ancestors before your God had deigned to reveal himself to you. Do not mistake the appearance for the power beneath. » He took off his sunglasses, revealing the pupilless, yellow eyes. « The King, soon to be Emperor, of the greatest intragalactic expanse yet known, pisses himself when he thinks I am watching him, and it is right and proper for him to do so. And I am not the darkest, nor the mightiest force currently in the field. » The man stepped back from the shaken bishop. « So put your chest-beating to rest, and either help us solve this mystery, or get out of my way and out of my sight. » He hadn’t raise his gravelly voice, but it contained a power all the bishop’s shouting could never match.

      The bishop nodded warily.

      « And they accuse me of not being able to motivate people, » the man grumbled, « You were going to tell us what you know, and I interrupted, I do apologize. »

      « The stones are part of a ward of some kind, » the bishop said as he tried to shake off his fear of the other man, « From what I can tell, at least two more stones are not here. »

      « Check at the temple where all the priests slew themselves. I’d wager one of the stones is there, perhaps another at the Hino family temple, » the man told Keiko.

      She gulped and sent an aide to check both locations.

      « What was held by this ward? » the tweed-clad man asked, « And how powerful was it? Is this a lock and gate, or just a sleeping pill. »

      The bishop snorted, then considered. « I don’t recognize the runes, and they change while you read them. Maybe you can provide a translation. »

      The man looked at each of the stones in their cases, then rearranged the cases while explaining, « I think those girls were dupes. The Crimson Pineapples were just powerful and skilled enough to keep them occupied, and the entire mess was low-powered enough to escape detection while your teams were busy up north. Perhaps an innocent was needed to locate the stones, or prevent their return to their home points. »

      « Then why haven’t they returned? » the doctor asked, « They’ve been out of the girls’ possession for at least a day. »

      « Once enough stones were removed, they might have lost their return, ah, here it is. Yes, the ward was to seal in the mother of all serpents and dragons. That must make dear daddy Yig overjoyed. They were trying to get the divorce or separation overturned. Mother of all dragons should be Tiamat, but she’s in Kaddath in the Cold Waste, sleeping on a king’s ransom. So . . . who are we dealing with? Some usurper, or one of that bastard’s ‘thousand less one’ forms? »

      « What are you talking about? » the bishop demanded.

      « You think even you have seen it all? There’s yet another world out there, and another and another. Like mirrors facing each other. Washu, Tsunami and Tokemi were idiots not to see it instantly, some supreme beings. In great antiquity, there was a war between two great forces. Not good and evil as your legends tell, but two who sought total mastery, and oblivion for us. The victors were not strong enough to slay the vanquished. So they sealed them away. Now those seals are weakening. This is one of those seals. »

      « So we can expect an invasion? » Keiko asked.

      « No, the boy and Langley have a plan to avoid that. But – but, but, something sealed here, in Japan, won’t be an invader, just a grouchy sleeper awakened by the buzzing of gnats you call your civilization. Without this sabotage, it might have slept another age until the Stars were not Right. Keiko, get on the radio with your sister. My knowledge of Japanese folklore is not what it should be. I need to know of the legends of female dragons of great power, whether they are called demons, Kamis, gods or just dragons, I need to know. »

      « What are you thinking? » the doctor asked, « And what is your name? »

      « Never ask for names, it is dangerous and impolite. Ask instead, ‘What are you called?' »

      « What are you called? »

      « Kitty, » the man replied with a grimace.

      Tatewaki Kuno was unsure where he was, he’d been asleep on his way to Tokyo by helicopter. Too many consider this my natural state, but I always knew where I was. My beliefs did not strongly correspond to the assumptions they clung to, he thought as he walked through the odd woodlands, his blade drawn and his mind ready.

      The clatter of hooves drew his attention. At least they are making no attempt to disguise their movements, he thought as he glanced in all other directions, And they are not using the noisy approach as a diversion.

      The gray-eyed woman riding the horse looked like one of the shamans of ancient legend.

      « You are from before the arrival of the Buddhist Chinese, » Tatewaki said, offering a bow, but not resheathing his blade, « I am Kuno Tatewaki. I would request your name. »

      « My name must remain a secret for the moment, » the swarthy woman told him, « Be it known that Yamato is in grave danger. You have fought in but one battle, there shall be many others. The only others who dream strongly enough for me to contact are foreign, either their nation or way of thinking. I need a dreamer who touches the ancient times and ways. Your princess is in danger, perhaps I can be of assistance. »

      « I will admit that I am oft accuse of being mired in the past, » Tatewaki said, « But yours is a past further back than the one I favor. And ‘the princess’ you speak of is not Amaterasu-omikami’s line, but Serenity’s? »

      « Indeed. »

      « I would hear your proposal, and I may have to discuss it with another shaman, whose designs seem to encompass Serenity’s heir, and perhaps the whole world. »

      « I know that one, it is not just this world his webs seek to prevent from falling, but many others as well, » the woman said, « First, I must tell you the true danger, then I shall propose my solution. You may take it to your shaman, but he cannot make himself see me, his eyes are questing elsewhere, you will have to be our go between. »

      « He trusts me, to carry out his schemes perhaps, but that is for a later time, » Tatewaki said.

      Sasami woke suddenly. Okay, am I waking up from a dream, she wondered, Or am I waking into a dream? She looked over the darkness of her room, and felt the familiar presences in the house. There are extras, she realized.

      « Lady, » the ragamuffin who’d been looking after her dreams stepped through the wall, « He’s back, and the dragon’s no’ available. Me and the others can hold him, but better you be elsewhere. »

      « I can help, » Sasami said as she reached for her henshin pen.

      I can be a goddess, but changing into a Sailor Senshi makes me more confident, she thought as the girl in the tattered clothes picked her out of the bed and carried her out into the hall.

      Sasami was about to protest when she saw the ‘others’. The crystal I know, but I should be more afraid of my defenders, than what they’re defending me against?! she thought of the rattlesnake man with the feather headdress, the crab monster that somehow managed to have more legs touching the ground than attached to its body and the vampire who seemed to be standing unharmed in his own private sunbeam, and these were the least disturbing of the group.

      « Bathroom, » the urchin said firmly as the familiar footsteps echoed through the house.

      « Bathroom, » Sasami agreed as she stepped in and looked straight at what appeared to be a full-sized replica of the Death Star aimed right at the door. Sasami ducked and squealed, « Eep! » as a squadron of TIE defenders flew over her head. Tsunami stood up in her place.

      « The instruction manual is right there, your Ladyship, » the urchin said as she closed and locked the door behind her.

      « This is the second choice to having Kitty here?! » Tsunami exclaimed.

      Stirogi picked his teeth with a piece of `unbreakable` armor plate. « He was right, that was refreshing, » he said and smiled, « I’d better get back to the restaurant. Cologne is nearly as frightening as his Lordship. » He took to the air and headed back home, leaving the remains of the massacre behind.

      Mirei was fixing breakfast for them, as the trio greeted the sun. « I thought you wouldn’t set foot in here unless a life or soul was in danger, » she teased.

      « There is, » Jeff replied tiredly.

      « Well, there’s plenty, the others seem to have slept in after last night’s excitement, » Mirei said and stared at Kasumi, « They seem to have eaten all the cookies you made for today’s tea, and I didn’t get any. »

      Kasumi smiled nervously as she carried the dishes to the table, and Jeff and Rei helped Mirei out of her chair to sit at the low table.

      « Progress? » Mirei asked.

      « More than I’d hoped, » Rei replied, « On all fronts. »

      « Can I say I think that this is a horrible idea? » Jeff asked as he served the rice to everyone, much to the shock of the three women, he looked at them and explained, « I have to offend you all somehow. » And returned to serving.

      « Whoever marries him is going to have their hands full, » Mirei commented, « You know any good bronc busters? » she asked sweetly.

      « My cousin, she’s already married, » Jeff replied.

      « If you objected, why did you go along with it? » Rei asked.

      « Because I’m probably wrong, » he admitted, « And it won’t be my problem, it will be yours. »

      « What are you two talking about? » Kasumi asked.

      « You know about the goddess Vesta? » Jeff asked.

      « Hearth and home, » Kasumi replied brightly, then frowned, « And her priestesses had to be chaste for 30 years. »

      « And Serenity’s Sailor Scouts didn’t get any nookie for almost a thousand years, » Jeff said, making Rei choke on her miso soup, « It’s the truth. »

      « It isn’t very nice to say, » Kasumi scolded, « There’s no moon or planet called Vesta. »

      « How do you know that?! » Rei demanded.

      « I read, » Kasumi said with a smile, « I wanted to be a doctor. » She looked down at her breakfast. « I guess that’s not possible. »

      « There’s an asteroid, » Rei tried to take control of the situation again, « It seems that certain celestial bodies are appropriate, others are not. »

      « You’re asking me to become a Senshi?! » Kasumi gasped, « But I have the house and –  »

      « And you’ll be leaving that to me, and to Akane. It’s about time that girl started growing up. All her martial arts nonsense is going to be put in the proper perspective. As if either of these two couldn’t kill her without breaking a sweat. If she wants to inherit the Dojo, she’s going to take on the responsibility of being the owner, rather than just be a user. »

      « She’s – « Kasumi looked around nervously, then whispered, « She’ll ruin it. »

      « Then we’ll have you, your new friends and colleagues to help rebuild. She’s had the privileges, it’s time she gets all the responsibilities. »

      « Splinters, smashed thumbs, » Jeff commented as he ate.

      « You think you’re joking? » Mirei asked.

      « I’ve done construction work. I’ve also seen what happens when you don’t pay attention to details, » Jeff replied to Mirei, then turned to Kasumi, « And your sister is a champion at that. »

      « At least you think she excels at something, » Kasumi muttered darkly. Then she stared at the table. « Why aren’t you offering this to Akane? She’s a better fighter than I am. »

      « Situation – what’s the fighter pilot term, situational awareness? You seem to just automatically sense and be prepared for the unexpected. That’s more important than combat power. » Rei glared at Jeff. « That was my thinking. Besides, if you can’t thrash any three of us, I’ll eat my henshin pen. »

      « Wouldn’t it go in easier elsewhere? » Kasumi asked, again Rei started choking on the food.

      Mamoru Chiba limped up the stairs to his gym class. He noted the posting outside the door. Kendo master, eh? he thought as he entered the locker room to change. The large bruise from where that twit had thrown him against the wall was mostly yellow now, I’m amazed it healed so fast. I’m even more amazed that I didn’t get a broken leg. How did a slip of a girl like that throw me five meters? Even in judo, nobody ever managed that. Oh right, ‘I have to see Sailor V!’ The power of love, ha.

      He closed his locker and continued to the gym floor. Unusually, the class was assembled around a distinguished-looking swordsman who carried an odd, straight sword nearly as tall as he was. Weird, Mamoru thought as he realized the big man was nearly as tall as he was himself, He’s taller than average, by a lot, so that blade is more like a European war sword or great sword.

      The man took the tip of the blade, and bent it back until it touched the hilt. Gasps of astonishment from the audience heightened as the sensei placed a silk handkerchief on the blade, which the man released, launching the brightly colored square into the air as the blade snapped out straight, unharmed by the experience. The man then caught the handkerchief on the edge of the blade, then pulled the blade back to resheathe it, leaving the two halves of the handkerchief to flutter to the ground. To the applause of the stunned class.

      One of Mamoru’s buddies elbowed him in his unbruised side. « I always heard Kuno Tatewaki was a screaming loon, he’s just a tad eccentric. »

      Kuno Tatewaki! Mamoru thought as he recognized the face from the dreams/nightmares that had plagued him for weeks, My `death` in the arctic fighting a beautiful, evil sorceress alongside a pack of bathing suit-clad schoolgirls. This can’t be happening, they are just dreams, nothing more!

      « Stand, » the sensei demanded, « Bow, sit. »

      They all did as ordered.

      « Is it true that you’re the greatest swordsman in all Japan? » one of the class blurted out.

      « I am not. Masaki Yosho, a temple priest, holds that honor, » Kuno replied, in stark contrast to his reputation for bombast, « And I have not crossed swords with Tuxedo Mask, although I have bested some of his foes. »

      « You fought alongside the Sailor Scouts? » the same loudmouth asked.

      « Sailor Soldiers, » Kuno’s polite tone had an edge now, « Scouts do not fight life and death battles on behalf of the human race. »

      That seems to have put an end to it.

      « Are they cute? »

      Seemed to.

      « Have you seen a photograph of them? » Kuno teased.

      « No, but . . .  »

      « They are equally hard to touch with the eye, especially in the midst of battle. Their differing color schemes are the best hope of telling them apart. Magic precludes direct, effective observation. Two false and four real Senshi fought a battle at this very campus. » Kuno shrugged. « Where are the photographs? With three photography clubs in attendance, not one frame of film. Coincidence? I think not. »

      With it finally settled, Kuno bowed to the sensei and stood, putting his mask on and striding confidently towards the practice area of the gym. « Kendo is an art of deliberate grace, where its effectiveness in combat is secondary to the scoring system. Kenjitsu is an art of war, where slaying one’s opponent takes a higher priority. »

      Mamoru chuckled at that, along with the other students.

      « The blade, exchanged for bokken, loses little of its lethality, but reduces the chance of accidental injury. The lath of bound bamboo that replaced it, possesses none of the lethality and reduces the chance of accidental injury to almost nothing. Besides, if Kendo is your aim, the point is the goal. Never take your eyes wholly off the goal. Concentrating solely on the means make you lose sight of why you embarked on your quest in the first place. » He turned suddenly to face them.

      It’s like he’s looking at me and only me, Mamoru thought.

      « Dreams have a reality of their own. Pursue, and they may simply fade away. Live your life avoiding them, and they will trip you at every turn. You must embrace the ones you desire and destroy the ones you do not want. Japan is an orderly and hierarchical society because ‘The tallest tree is first cut down’, yet we lionize those who ignore convention and win. Even more, those whose vision is compelling enough to force society to follow them. » Kuno fell silent, looking every inch the nobleman-sage, despite his youth and reputation. « Meditate on this while we exercise our swords. You – » He pointed at Mamoru. « You hold back your skill. Do not be ashamed to release it against me. I have battled those whose might trouble even the gods, yet I live. That is another lesson, when an obviously superior foe stands before you, cross blades with him with the greatest honor and courtesy, then negotiate. Let them know you will fight for what you hold dear. It then becomes a meeting of sempai and kohai, not a beggar in the street tugging at a nobleman’s kimono. »

      Mamoru considered that as he put his mask on, and prepared himself.

      « The oddest wisdom can be gained from unexpected sources, » Kuno explained as he took the most audaciously ridiculous stance Mamoru had ever seen.

      « Holding the grip over your head, with the blade pointed at the floor?! »

      « I will forgive your incorrect terminology as part of your shock, but if I am so vulnerable, attack. »

      Mamoru did, and found himself in the fight of his life. Even his mightiest blows were turned by a slight wrist or elbow motion, or aborted as he was forced to bring his blade down to defend against Tatewaki’s probing attacks. I recognize this! Mamoru realized, I recognize the stance! Although he wasn’t the one using it. It was another ‘gentleman’!

      « The dance of blades is a meditation, » Tate told him as he batted away Mamoru’s blade with trivial ease, « Cease trying to think through the move, your body knows what is required. Your mind should focus on analysis and strategy. »

      « Yes, sensei, » Mamoru said as he paused and refocused. As he began again, he found his body had a well of skill he had always feared to dip into. I was always afraid I’d hurt someone, he thought as shinai clashed on shinai, Even Master Ken wouldn’t be a match, but Kuno is, and while it’s still a completely one-sided fight, at least now it’s a fight.

      Kuno grinned behind the mask as Mamoru fought harder than he’d ever fought before.

      This is like my dreams, I remember fighting, and losing, to this very style. I remember getting lectured by one Kuno Tatewaki on . . . something important, something about darkness.

      Kuno waited until Mamoru had finished his reverie, to knock the blade from his hands, and remove his mask with a complicated flip of his shinai. Rather than attack, Tatewaki lowered his blade and removed his own mask. « Well fought, » he said as he bowed, « I hope it was as enlightening as it appeared. »

      Mamoru bowed. « I may be more confused, but about other things. »

      « Very good. » Kuno turned to the class. « Who wishes to learn the MacBane Hanging Guard. A rather devious Raccoon favored it and nearly bested me in single-combat. The technique must have some merit. »

      Mamoru sat beside the sensei as the other students went through the exercises.

      « I see you begin living up to your potential as a swordsman. Too bad you don’t live in the 15th century, as does young Kuno there, where such skill would grant you a place in the royal court. Perhaps as a prince or princess’s bodyguard. »

      « I’m not sure I’m worthy of such an august role. »

      I’d lead with my heat, he silently added, And I’ve done that job before, if my dreams are really memories, and not illusions to torment me.

      Sasami watched the usual argument raging around the house. She’d finished the breakfast dishes and it was some hours until lunch preparations would have to begin. She picked up the phone and dialed a familiar number.

      « Neko-chan, we will be open for lunch at 10:30 and continuing to dinner service at 6:00 PM, » the old woman’s voice told him.

      « Cologne-chan! » Sasami said happily, imagining the old woman’s scowl, « Is Raccoon-san about. »

      « Sorry, he’s out. »

      « Can you have him call me when he gets in. » Sasami looked around the house. « I need a break. »

      « Understood child, » the old woman said, « Are you sure such a diversion would be restful? »

      « It would be different, » Sasami answered, « And it would be safe. However exciting. »

      « Kuno-sensei, » Mamoru called as the other man left the athletic building, « Do you have time? »

      « I must lunch, but there is a caf‚ near, where the food is acceptable. »

      Mamoru fell in beside the man. « You remember, don’t you, » he said rather than asked, « The battles, the girls . . .  »

      « Your death and my survival against Beryl? » Kuno asked, « Yes, I remember it well. I have oft wondered who suffered more, those who died, or those who survived. I am pained that you and the others remember not, but there are sufficient forces available to deal with the problems that have cropped up. Yet I fear more in the future. »

      « You seem pretty comfortable talking about this, » Mamoru said after frantically glancing around for eavesdroppers.

      « When all of Japan thinks one is an mad imbecile, one gains a tremendous latitude in what can be done, and said. If inappropriate, it will be ignored as ‘that’s just Kuno spouting off again’. If wisdom, it will be credited as random chance. Neither reflects back to me, so I have total freedom. » The only sign of emotion was his tight grip on the bokken at his side.

      So he knows most think he’s a clown, and he’s realized that accepting the role, makes him free to act as he needs. It also makes people forget how deadly he is, Mamoru reasoned, Interesting. I’ve been playing the role as well, except I didn’t know what my true identity was.

      « So, Tuxedo Mask . . . isn’t needed, yet. »

      « Accurate enough, for now. The shaman is reticent to let out clues, but he knows more than he lets on. He’s trained Sailor Mars in ways and means that her previous version would not comprehend. Sailor Saturn and her knight are very active. Sailor V is active as well. »

      Mamoru winced at that. « That I know. Stupid dumpling head. »

      « Ah, true love, » Kuno said and Mamoru nearly collided with a flagpole.

      « Her?! » he practically screamed at the departing Kuno, then raced to catch up, « You can’t mean that . . . that’s almost too cruel, the fates wouldn’t do that to us!! »

       » ‘Us’? You have a great debt in karma, defeating Beryl helped the balance, but Endymion beggared you in that regard. She has a good heart, she will have a good mind alongside her. » Kuno grimaced slightly, as if the memory physically pained him. « But cunning and common sense are what she likewise needs. She was a fourteen-year-old girl thrust into an impossible battle, then forced back into the role of an ordinary fourteen-year-old girl, and she reacted as a confused fourteen-year-old would, erratically. Sailor Moon occasionally showed the irrationality that so delineates Usagi. You also failed to operate in the best mode as well. The sniper who strikes without warning is an excellent tool, but part of a sniper’s job is the garnering of intelligence and dispatching it back to base. That was where you universally failed to perform. You were not part of the team, merely an allied force. It gave your enemies a window of opportunity that they should not have had. »

      « They’re junior high school kids, » Mamoru protested vaguely remembering the series of crushes they’d gotten on Tuxedo Mask.

      « And so they are not worthy of your protection for that reason? Then meeting you in person will cure them of their infatuation, » Kuno said, and smirked.

      « Right. » Mamoru smiled at the insult. « Doesn’t all this bother you? Being forced into it? »

      « I was not forced. I chose it, eagerly. You aren’t being forced either, except to embrace your destiny or accept the cost of evading it. That is what disquiets your ruminations and your dreams. It is all up to you to decide if you wish to wholly embrace or wholly reject what is before you. Unlike so much in life, you cannot be even partially both, it most be fully one or the other. »

      « What would you do? »

      « I would run away, » Tatewaki said, « If you must ask the question of being hero and protector, or being a mere salaryman, then salaryman you should be. If you harbor doubts before you set foot upon the path, then your doubts walk the path with you, and will destroy you or those who depend on you, or everyone. There are forces enough, although ill-trained and even less prepared, but they will fill the void. They will have to. »

      « Thank you, » Mamoru said and bowed, « You’ve given me a lot to think about. »

      Tatewaki returned the bow and walked away.

      So do I walk – run – away, or do I give up on everything I planned to do with my life, and die again, like I did the first time? Enemies from Earth’s distant past, and I can stop them, if I give up everything, to be someone else. Or is there something else? He said hero and protector, I don’t have to be Tuxedo Mask, I don’t have to be exactly what was destined, but I can fill the role. So do the job, not be the job, Mamoru thought, then smiled and headed off, feeling better than he had for weeks.

      « Are you ready for this? » Jeff asked Mirei as they waited in the Dojo.

      « Are you? That doesn’t look like enough supplies for something like this, » Mirei commented on the pile of the quilts left over from the previous night, unfolded and piled in a lump.

      « This is real magic, all I need is the demon, a knife and a leather-covered stick, » Jeff told her, « And you two of course. »

      « I’m still nervous about this. Are you sure it’s going to work? » Mirei asked.

      « There’s nothing sure in life, and even less in magic, » Jeff explained patiently, « This has a better chance of working than any surgery or other technique. »

      « I can’t believe they used Happosai’s scrolls, and screwed it up so badly, » Rei said, then looked at Jeff, « And you actually believed them. »

      « I was Ranma Saotome for over 19 years, in a dream that mirrors reality perfectly in every part that’s even close to this reality. I saw Happosai summon up creatures, although usually they were just information demons. You trade data with them, even the fact you’d just learned something could be valuable to them. And he was always slipshod in his prep and defense work. But info demons are more interested in getting the data fast and going home fast to really require much in the way of defense. So it was an easy mistake to make, assuming he summoned the demons, and they got away from him. Why don’t you stab me through the heart as punishment? »

      « But why would they abandon her to it? » Mirei asked while Rei shuddered, « Aren’t martial artists supposed to protect the weak? »

      « If that were true, they would have used a coordinated action to rescue Nodoka. Instead of leaving her up there for an hour after Jeff left, » Rei said angrily, « Even bold Akane seemed less than eager to stick her nose out of the house. »

      « I noticed all you did was pull the sword out of the tree, » Mirei teased, « Then drove the thing into the ground up to the hilt. Just to make the bait easier to get at, or a comment on their honor? »

      « Some of each, » Rei glared at Jeff again before continuing, « I thought you were setting up an ambush. »

      « I was just timing how long it would take them to figure out she was no longer guarded, and do something about it. »

      « Now you said all you needed was a knife, a stick, and your magic, » Mirei said, as she moved back and forth nervously in her wheelchair, « Would you mind explaining to an ignorant old woman how that’s going to restore her legs, and why you couldn’t do the same for me? »

      « The stick is to bite down on. I can heal your legs, but you’d be in constant pain for months as you got used to the nerves sending messages you’re not used to hearing. The Oni bypassed all that recovery time, so all I have to do is cut open the wound on her back where the demon they originally summoned cut her. I get the Oni out, mix it’s blood with the demon’s poison, ritually purify the elixir while the contact with the Oni painlessly restores her legs to their healthy and usable condition. »

      « It’s all about timing, » Rei realized, « How do we keep the idiots from waking up and spoiling everything, and how do we keep Kasumi from overhearing and running for the hills? » She and Mirei stared at Jeff.

      « I dosed the morons with more sleeping pills, enough to practically kill them, so we should have and hour or two. Then I tied them up, Nodoka to Genma, so they’ll be `discussing` his rescue attempt. For Soun, I used his wife’s favorite table cloth, so he’ll have to be careful getting loose, and Akane . . . let’s just say I learned a little about ropes from Happosai. She’ll stay put. »

      « That’s disgusting, » Rei said flatly.

      « Then it’s good I left her an apology in your handwriting, » Jeff retorted, « As for Kasumi. » Jeff walked up to the pile of quilts and lifted the top one, revealing Kasumi. « She’s been here the whole time. I invited her to a `surprise brunch`, and she let me tie her up. » The girl looked like a caterpiller trying to get out of it’s cocoon, except for the stick in her mouth.

      « Using the same techniques as you used on Akane? » Rei asked.

      Kasumi shook her head ‘no’, and glared at Jeff.

      Rei covered her face with her hands. « How much did you actually learn from Happosai, while you were Ranma? »

      « Quite a bit actually, » Jeff said thoughtfully, « Rope tricks, massage, special pressure points, tickling, all kinds of interesting things. »

      Rei and Mirei began edging away from him, Kasumi looked extremely hopeful.

      « The problem was, once you’d gotten her to take off her underwear, » Jeff said wistfully.

      « Yes? » « Yes? » « Mrmft? » Mirei, Rei and Kasumi asked.

      « The syllabus turned to escape and evasion procedures, » Jeff said and shook his head, then helped Rei back to her feet from where she’d faceplanted.

      « That explains everything! » Rei announced as she confronted him, « You certainly learned the techniques for that! Get’em excited, then run away! »

      « Personal experience dear? » Mirei asked sweetly. Jeff caught Rei before she could use her face to dent the Dojo’s floor boards again.

      « Shall we get started? » Rei asked. Kasumi shook her head violently.

      « Relax Oni-chan, you won’t feel a thing, » Rei said, then punched Kasumi in the jaw, nearly breaking her hand in the process.

      The tiny disk-like Oni floated through the air. Rei deftly caught it in the special ward she’d prepared. She kept a tight grip as she watched in horror as Kasumi’s legs withered like a time lapse photograph of a dying flower. Jeff had pulled up Kasumi’s blouse, revealing the wide, ugly scar cutting across her back at waist level, and the circle of runes surrounding it. « That thing looks like it’s alive, » Rei said as she wrapped the Oni firmly inside the ward, and ignored the odd feeling of it squirming within the paper.

      « It is, » Jeff replied as he took out a small knife and cut into it. Kasumi writhed and screamed in response.

      « Aren’t you going to tell me to hold her still? You are cutting near her spine, » Rei asked.

      « Her spine terminates about three centimeters above and below this point, » Jeff said as he kept cutting, « That’s why we don’t have to anesthetize her. The pain she’s feeling is induced by the organism in here, which . . .  » he stabbed savagely, and there was a loud popping sound and Kasumi lay still. « The Oni. » Jeff put out his hand and Rei placed the paper wrapped disk in his grip.

      He sunk the Oni into the unbleeding wound almost until it was completely enclosed and with a pen, closed the circle around the wound. The ring of runes glowed softly.

      How deep did he cut? Rei wondered, then watched in amazement as Kasumi’s legs began to `reinflate`, regaining vigor and muscle tone, Unbeleivable. The girl began twisting and stretching them, and moaning with pleasure, as if she were receiving the finest massage. She slumped and lay still as Jeff snapped the Oni in half and squeezed every drop of its ichor into the rapidly sealing wound.

      « She passed out, » Mirei said, « When she wakes, she’ll be able to walk? »

      « When she wakes, she practically want to fly, » Jeff said as he rolled over and flopped on the Dojo floor, « The whole process infused her with significant energy. Energy that thing had been sucking out of her. »

      « Why isn’t there any blood? » Rei asked as she raised herself to a sitting position and surveyed the spotless quilts and Kasumi’s flawless, unmarked skin where the wound had been, « Yes I know, it’s a dumb question. »

      « I was never cutting on human flesh, » Jeff said as he lay there, « And the ichor was used up in the regeneration. »

      « What about the Oni’s spirit? » Rei asked.

      « Find out for yourself, priestess! » Jeff replied shortly.

      Rei chastised herself and tried to feel the evil she’d sensed with the Oni around. « It’s gone! We did it! »

      « Now you have to get out of here, » Mirei reminded them, « My son won’t like that you harmed Kasumi, no matter that she came out of the experience far better than she went in. »

      « They summon up those demons that were causing all the problems, they leave their `beloved` Kasumi behind to be wounded when they all run away, Jeff and Asuka kill all the demons they released, the two of us fix the last problem they have hanging, and we have to run away. »

      « Rei-sensei, I think you’ve summed it up beautifully. » Jeff began untying/unwrapping the dozing Kasumi. « Where are you going? »

      « We’re packed and ready to go, right? » Rei asked.

      « Other than your lunches, » Mirei said, « Yes. »

      « I’m going to go find their marbles, then beat them to death with them, » Rei said as she stalked out.

      « You’d better go after her, » Jeff said tiredly.

      « Can you handle her? »

      « I’m just going to drape the quilt over her, » Jeff replied, « No way am I going to try to carry her to her room in my condition. »

      « I meant if she wakes up, » Mirei corrected.

      « The Oni’s gone, » Jeff replied in confusion.

      « Then you really don’t know what it’s like being stuck in this chair, do you, » Mirei said with a smirk as she rolled after Rei.

Sailor Jupiter – Pilots Insane
Sailor Jupiter – Pilots in Reflection