Chapter 26: Objective Insecured
WARNING: This chapter contains disturbing content that may be triggering to some, including depictions of violence, body horror, physical and mental trauma, and death.
La Fin de Toute
(Formerly known as Galactica Palace)
"Whuddyuh bean id's uh Cahd?" Erika Kurumi, Cure Marine, spoke in a voice that was muffled by the trauma to her nose from a few moments ago. It sounded like she had a bad cold. "Id's uh wall! Uh bigh, sthupid, inbisuhbuhl wall!"
After a few seconds spent translating that statement, Sakura Kinomoto shook her head. "Not just any card. One of my Cards. The LOCK. It's one of the ones Joker stole… he must have brainwashed it like he did NOTHING and the others."
Chibi-Usa Tsukino (who had decided to retain the name "Sailor Chibi-Moon" for the time being, despite being a bit too old for it… if only to lessen confusion) put out a hand. After a few inches, she felt resistance there, like a pane of impossibly smooth glass. "Can you open it, Sakura-san?"
Sakura nodded and wiped her brow. "I-I think so. I just don't know whether I can do it while still keeping ILLUSION working."
"At this point, I don't see many other options," said Alph, standing with her arms crossed a few paces behind them. Her ears were half-flattened, a sign of tension that belied her attempt to look calm and casual. "Give it a try."
Sakura nodded and inched forward. At her silent command, the Sealing Wand shrank back to its key form. Closing her eyes, she reached out not with her body, but with her inner senses, drawing on Kero's training that she remembered from long ago. Yes, she could see it now: a vast, dome-shaped field encompassing the palace, and a bulge in that field, a few meters away at ground level, a bulge with a familiar shape. "This way," she said without opening her eyes. "It's here." Her fingertips traced the smooth, curved shackle, the rounded rectangular body that housed the integrated drum and chamber. The same simple padlock shape that LOCK always had when it was released, but something about it felt… cold. Wrong. Just wait, she thought. I'll have you back to normal soon. With great care, she slid the end of her key into the tumbler…
All the others started as a fat spark erupted from the field, making Sakura cry out.
"Sakura!" Nagisa Misumi, Cure Black, was the first at her side. "Are you okay? What happened?"
"It-" said Sakura, tears welling in her eyes. Gingerly she showed the Precure leader the angry red marks on her fingertips. Painful, but nothing serious. "It won't let me open it."
"Well, what should we do, then?" Kirara Amanogawa, Cure Twinkle, kicked up a floating cloud of space dust as she tapped her foot impatiently. "Try to bust through it, or what?"
"Let me try one more time." Sakura sniffled and wiped her eyes, then her brow again. She felt a bit lightheaded. "I think I can reach it, just let me talk to it."
Michiru Kaioh, Sailor Neptune, pressed her lingering doubts back down and nodded. Sakura knew her Cards better than anyone, it was her call to make. "If you please."
This time, Sakura took hold of the padlock, feeling its presence with both her hands and her power. "This isn't you,"she whispered. The LOCK's spirit stirred, sharper and crueler than she remembered, sending prickles through her tender fingertips. "This isn't who you're supposed to be. Please, try to remember."
The spirit within the LOCK thrashed and battered itself against the confines of its physical form. Sakura's fingertips reddened and began to burn, but she held on. As had happened many times before, the spell's invocation came to Sakura's mind at her bidding. "O lost Card, aimless and wandering," she said to it, her voice rising a little more with each word. Her magic circle, still hovering beneath her feet, pulsed and shone with golden light. "Return to the hands of your true master, and be restored to your original form! LOCK!"
It was as if a switch had been flipped. One moment, the spirit of the LOCK was harsh and distorted, and the next it was the warm presence Sakura remembered, the one she had captured at the Tomoeda strawberry farm all those years ago. It floated into her waiting hands, a Clow Card once more, the padlock shape emblazoned on the front and her name in bold English letters across its bottom: SAKURA.
Relieved, Sakura smiled at it for a few seconds before her knees buckled beneath her and she tumbled to the rocky ground.
Joker's private chambers were locked and soundproofed at all times. Whenever the mood struck him, he would take one or more of his Bad End Precure into the chamber. Usually Happy, but sometimes any of the others at random, a group of two or more, or all four of them at once. For hours afterward, there would be neither sight nor sound of any of them. After a while, Joker would reappear, smiling and much refreshed. Hours after that, the Bad End Precure would follow, pale, shaken, and trembling.
No one knew what went on in those chambers. No one dared ask. And of course, Joker would never allow his favorite pet Cures to speak of it.
"Do you really think he's all right in there?" A pair of grey eyes watched the pitch-black closed door to the Master's chambers as if it might spring open at any moment. He and the Cures had been in there for hours…
Even by Dead End's eclectic standards, Sailor Iron Mouse stood out among them. A petite little thing with the ears and tail of her namesake, there was a slight curl to her lips that was outclassed by the multitude of white curls in her hair, and a very mouse-like constant anxiety about her. She was dressed all in white with fur trimmings. Oddly, she wore the same kind of sailor collar with her outfit that the Sailor Senshi of Vertex One did. That was because, as she would explain to the few who bothered to listen to her, she was of the dreaded Sailor Animamates in her previous life, Galaxia's corrupted Senshi who received their powers upon betraying and murdering the true Senshi of their home planets. The collar marked her as a Senshi; the jeweled golden bracelets underneath the furry ruffs of her gloves marked her as part of Shadow Galactica, which once succeeded in scouring her universe's entire galaxy of life. The great empire that all but eliminated the Sailor Senshi once and for all, and- That was the point in Iron Mouse's usual explanation where most people's attention drifted.
It was Viluy, once of the Death Busters, currently of Labyrinth, who now stood guard at the door. Viluy, whose love for anything made of wires and circuits was more like a fetish, who abandoned her former allegiance at the drop of a hat once she became aware of the tech-focused Labyrinth in Vertex Three. "Master Joker will be fine," she said in response to Iron Mouse's question. "Stop pestering me." Being blasted into vapor by Nanoha Takamachi hadn't improved Viluy's personality one bit. The new cloned body suited her well, but you couldn't tell that by her attitude. She didn't even look up as she spoke... her eyes darted back and forth, reading a flow of data projected directly onto her retinas, uplinked from the cable running from her temple to the nanotech device on her arm. Body modifications, installed via self-surgery, to bring her closer to her cherished tech than ever before. It was anyone's guess why she hadn't yet turned herself into a computer, or uploaded her brain into a robot body, or something like that.
The small girl's oversized round ears drooped. "I was just making conversation."
"Make it somewhere else."
Iron Mouse's voice took on a whine mixed with a high-pitched squeak. "But you're the only one here who will still talk to me! Those awful Amazons set my tail on fire the last time I tried…" Shuddering at the thought, Iron Mouse ran her tail through her hands. It was still sore in places. "Who else is there?! Eas is always in the library and never comes out. Lethe and Mnemosyne won't talk to anyone but each other. Marie-Ange, Dark Precure, and Moonlight are always busy leading the troops on the other worlds. I'm not going anywhere near Queen Nehelenia, and most of the monsters are too stupid to have a conversation with."
Finally, Viluy looked up at her. It was not a pleasant look. "Isn't there a dark cupboard in the ration room that you can scurry around in?"
Again, Iron Mouse shuddered. "Siren is down there."
"She's technically a cat. Cats make me nervous."
Viluy sniffed. "If you can be quiet, you can stay."
Iron Mouse made a pointed gesture to her ears and tail. "Quiet as."
That only made Viluy roll her eyes.
It was no more than a minute later when she went rigid, her attention snapping up to glare at something Iron Mouse couldn't see.
"What?" said Iron Mouse. "What is it?"
"Intruders," said Viluy. That cold, thin smile that gave Iron Mouse the creeps spread across her lips. "Someone has disabled the barrier around the palace, which means that the Cardcaptor must be here. Only she could reclaim the LOCK Card."
"And…? I-isn't that, you know, bad? M-maybe you should tell Master Joker-"
"There is no need." The smile somehow grew thinner, colder and creepier. "Master Joker anticipated something like this. Resealing the LOCK Card has automatically activated a second barrier of my own design, one hundred meters wider in diameter than the first. The intruders are now trapped in here, and the precautionary measures have been activated. Exterminating them is only a matter of time."
Perhaps it was the use of the word "exterminating", but Iron Mouse couldn't help but feel the tiniest bit sorry for the Cardcaptor and whoever else she might be with. Being stuck in this palace was frightening enough for someone on Dead End's side, never mind one of their enemies.
Blurry faced crowded around Sakura in a ring, all shouting muted words at once. Faintly she smiled up at them all. "I'm okay. I'm okay, really…"
"What happened, Sakkun?!" The first words to filter through her haze were Twinkle's, judging by the nickname. "Geez, you scared us half to death!"
"I m-must have overdone it. Used a little too much magic-"
"Dammit," said Alph's voice, cracking with strain, "if you didn't think you could handle it, you should have said something! You're too important to risk yourself like that!"
"Nobody else… nobody else could have opened the LOCK." Sakura clutched her retuned Clow Card to her chest. It was harder to breathe than she thought it should be. "You needed me. If this is what I have to do… I'll be fine."
Strong hands helped her to her feet. Chibi-Moon was the next to speak. "Please, Sakura-san, tell us if it's too much for you. You know we can always share our power."
"At least it's open now?" Marine fidgeted in place. Her first instinct was to dash up the stairs into the palace and start raising hell, but a sensation of unease held her back. The place gave her the creeps.
Though she wouldn't admit it, Mars felt just as on edge. Her sixth sense was a constant, droning buzz in the back of her skull, just as it was in the Witches' labyrinth. If this kept up, if would be all but useless for warning her of danger. One of her primary advantages in battle, rendered useless. Not a good sign, not at all. Then there was being here again...
Neptune said nothing. She stared grimly at the palace's portico, the wide, flat porch before the entrance to the palace proper. Seared into her mind like a brand was the memory of standing there, right between two of those mighty pseudo-marble columns, facing Eternal Sailor Moon, Chibi-Moon and her Quartet, and the mysterious Chibi-Chibi. A prisoner inside her own body, forced to fight her princess to the death alongside Uranus and six of the other Senshi. They were only a few steps away from that was where Sailor Moon unleashed her final, desperate attack against them, burning them all away to ash. Her eyes wandered up to the pediment atop the columns. There was a new addition to it since the last time she was here. Someone, she could guess who, had inscribed words deep into the pseudo-marble: ABANDONNE TOUT L'ESPOIR QUI ENTRE ICI. Charming. Neptune refused to be intimidated by it; Haruka was somewhere in there, damn it, and she vowed not to rest until her partner and lover was back in her rightful place by her side.
Fortune followed the Senshi's gaze to the writing and peered at it. "Is that French? I can't read it… What does it say?"
"Nothing worth translating," Neptune said coolly. "It's only an attempt to unnerve us."
Behind them, Black and Chibi-Moon lifted Sakura to her feet… only to have the Cardcaptor's legs give out the moment they stopped supporting her weight. "No good," said Black. "We're gonna have to take you with us."
"I'll be fine, honestly… just need a few... minutes..."
"We can't afford to waste any more time," said Alph, pushing to the head of the group. "Kinomoto, if at any point you feel you can't go on, say the word and I'll transport you back to the pod," said Alph. "That's an order, understood?"
"Good. Chibi-Moon, you and Black keep your eyes on her. Everyone else, follow me. We're going in."
The nine of them ascended the steps to the portico. A pair of great doors, some seven meters high and made of something like brass, barred their way to the palace's interior. They swung open easily at Alph's touch, not even a single lock. Easy, she thought. They don't know we're here. They can't know. They probably think we can't even find their base, much less break in…
Past the vestibule connected to the doorway was a cavernous entrance hall, flanked on both sides by more of those odd, pseudo-marble columns, towering over them like the legs of giants. Their footsteps echoed with every step… the hall was huge, open, and completely empty.
"It doesn't make sense," said Twinkle, toward the back of the group. "Even if they don't know we're coming… no guards? No locks? Nothing?"
"It's either overconfidence or a trap," said Fortune. "I'm leaning toward the latter."
"Mars," said Neptune. How she managed to say so calm, none of them knew. "Do you feel anything?"
"Nothing I haven't felt since we landed here." Mars's brows narrowed, and she kept her voice low despite there being no one to overhear it. There was something eerie, something fundamentally wrong with a place this huge having no one in it… "We'll just have to push ahead and-"
A ghastly voice filled the hall, a voice that droned and flickered and spat with distortion as if issuing from the speakers of an old, broken radio. In booming tones, it said simply: "Two zero four six... zero one."
That voice turned Mars's blood to ice, it crawled up and down her spine with tiny, frigid fingers, it studded her flesh with goosebumps. "What the hell what that?!" Then a warmth, dispelling the cold. A surging warmth in the fingertips of her left hand, like using Fire Soul, but she hadn't even called out the invocation- What-
Seeing her stricken expression, Marine came to her side, laid a hand on her shoulder. "Mars? You okay?"
Mars tried to wave her away, and halfway through that motion… streams of fire erupted from her fingertips. Marine's next question was still on her lips when it caught her point-blank, immersing her in searing heat. She made a shrill, high-pitched cry and fell back, clawing desperately at herself, at her hair, at her clothes, at her skin, all burst into crimson flame at once.
A storm of shouting from the others: "Marine!" "Erika?! Erika...!" "Mars, what are you doing?! What happened?!"
"I-" Mars could hardly speak. A living paradox, she felt simultaneously ice-cold and unbearably hot as her flames spewed forth from her hand, out of control. Before her, Marine twitched on the pseudo-marble floor in agony, there were glimpses of reddened and scorched black flesh between her blistered fingers as she clutched at her face and screamed, and screamed, and screamed… "M-Marine, I'm sorry, I didn't-"
"Hold her down!" Neptune shouted to anyone who would listen.
Fortune and Twinkle were first to act. They pounced upon Mars and drove her to the palace floor, taking hold of her arms. "Hang on, Mars, we've got you-"
"No, don't-" Another surge, and this time the fire erupted from each fingertip of her right hand, hotter and deadlier than it had ever been. Five meters away, it splashed over one of the pseudo-marble columns, leaving a mark that warmed from red to orange to white…
"What's happening? What's wrong with her?!" Beads of sweat broke on Fortune's forehead and ran down her brow.
"There must be something wrong with the fusion of the two Reis, just hold her still," said Neptune, stepping forward and taking aim. "Deep-"
She felt it coming, swelling up from within her lungs. Mars tried to warn her, tried to say something. But when she opened her mouth- An irrepressible heat came with her breath, catching alight the moment it left her lips, and the resulting inferno claimed Neptune in an instant. All to ashes.
The two Precure held her down as she thrashed against her grip, she could feel her skin igniting, they had to let her go before- Too late. Too late. Fire bursting from her forearms, from her palms, from each toe and the soles of her feet. She saw first Twinkle, then Fortune swoon from the heat and go limp, helpless prey for the blaze. Alph was overwhelmed as she fought to make it to the fallen Marine's side. Tongues of flame devoured her tail fur and swept over her body until she succumbed to burns and smoke. The pseudo-marble column on either side of the hall appeared to be shedding tears as rivulets of themselves poured down their sides. There was nowhere for Black, Sakura, and Chibi-Moon to go, every possible escape route was now alight. The last she saw of them was their panicked, pale, soot-streaked faces, rippling with heat haze, staring helplessly at her… before twin jets of flame spewed forth from both her eyes, and she saw no more.
Burning, burning. Ash and smoke and flame and intense heat and the terrible stench of charred hair and skin scorched to the bone. All of Galactica Palace was ablaze, and everything that could not burn melted like so much candle wax. In the center of that blaze was Mars, howling in agony with no one to hear. And still she felt that hellish flame within her growing, hungering to consume more, insatiable…
It was as she feared from the moment she first saw her new form in Neptune's mirror: the two Reis living as one were now more than the sum of the whole. The spirit of Sailor Mars, the power of Mars itself, was unquenchable flame. When two souls with that power shared one form, it was too much for a human body to contain. The power, the searing, blistering, raging power of the red planet… it consumed her as it consumed everything. In unthinkable pain, she screamed as her hair fell in a rain of cinders, as her flesh bubbled away, as her bones blackened, and yet she still existed, she still suffered… With nothing left of her mortal shell to contain it, she was the fire, restless and eternal, she would burn and burn and burn and burn forever…
"Mars? Mars! Speak to me, what's the matter?!" Marine crouched over the red Senshi, who had fallen to the pseudo-marble floor, screaming in agony with no clear cause. "Mars, come on, snap out of it! Mars-"
"Two zero four six… zero one."
And before the sepulchral voice finished registering in Marine's brain, she was… elsewhere.
What the hell…? What just-
Seated at the dining room table in her family home in Kibougahana, across from her older sister Momoka. Beautiful Momoka. Smart, popular Momoka. Perfect Momoka. The look in her eyes... Erika knew that look. Anger she could stand, sadness she could stand, but this was neither. This was worse. This was pity. This was the "Poor, simple little Erika" look. The look that always crumpled Erika's stomach down into a tiny ball and put a foul taste at the back of her throat. It was like there was a spotlight shining down on her, pinning her to the spot… not the runway spotlights she adored, but something harsh, accusatory, paralyzing.
"Vogue," said Momoka, picking up a magazine from the table and opening to one page. "'As for the debut of freshman designer Erika Kurumi's new line at the Paris Fashion Show… Of course, any discussion of her must take into account the smash success of her older sister, Momoka. Already a famous model at only sixteen years of age, the question on everyone's mind this week was whether or not the Kurumi family had enough talent for both sisters to succeed in an increasingly crowded and competitive field. While Erika's designs do show promise, her Floral Etude Collection was met with indifference at best by those in attendance.'"
Erika's cheeks flushed red. Prickles stung the corners of her eyes, and her vision grew blurred. She wasn't stupid, she knew that the show didn't go well, but for Vogue to put it like that...
"Vivi," Momoka continued, picking up another. "'Erika Kurumi's Floral Etude fails to impress. Will the younger Kurumi be able to emerge from her older sister's long shadow?'"
"I-" Her throat was too tight to speak. In her lap, her hands made a mess of her skirt as she clutched it harder and harder.
"Tokyo Journal." And still Momoka went on. "'... not the worst of the show by any means, but well below Paris standards.' Nicola: 'Floral Etude Performs Poorly.' Seventeen: 'Younger Kurumi's Etude: Hackneyed, Forgettable'... I'm sorry, Erika, but I warned you that this might happen."
"Momo-nee-" The protest came out thick, almost unintelligible. Why, why was this happening? She had come so far, how could she have failed so badly?
"It's a brutal world out there. It can be cruel and unforgiving." Momoka sighed, sat back, and crossed her arms. "To be honest, I always thought you were too-"
"I was… too what?!" Hot tears spilled down Erika's cheeks. Forcing out each word was a struggle, but fighting the urge to break down into a sobbing was a herculean task… and she felt herself slipping.
"Too nice," said Momoka. "Nice" was phrased not as a compliment, but as a further reason for pity. "Too sensitive for this line of work. To succeed in fashion you have to be hard, to be just as cruel and unforgiving as they can be. You're my little sister, I know you, and you're not that kind of person."
Momoka's little sister. Erika long suspected that Momoka thought this way, and now she openly admitted it. A little sister was all she would ever be. Someone to be watched over, someone to be protected, someone to be pitied, someone who was too weak to stand on her own. All of her greatest dreams and aspirations were just childish notions, whims that famous, successful Momoka politely entertained with a smile. Cute little sister Erika, thinking she could be a famous fashion designer. Childish Erika. Stubborn Erika. Simple Erika. Her skin grew cold, her mind unraveled…
Momoka rose from the chair to embrace her in arms that held no warmth, no comfort for her. "It's okay, Erika," she said, cooing softly. "I'll take care of you. I'll always be here to take care… of my baby sister…"
Erika tried to push her away, tried to scream at Momoka that she wasn't to be pitied… but words wouldn't come, only a primal, sub-verbal wail. Her hands felt clumsy, unrefined. Through tear-stained eyes, she looked at herself… and saw a small child's chubby arms and fat fingers. Momoka loomed over her, impossibly big, too big to ever match…
No. No, I... can't… this… is… is...
Even thinking became a struggle as her mind slowly regressed to match the child that Momoka always saw whenever she looked at her… All of Erika's reason, her talent, her experience, her memories, her pride and determination, all slid backward into an earlier, simpler state of being until she couldn't even remember what she was sad about. She knew only that she had done something bad, made a big mess, and big sister Momo-nee was here to hold her while she cried...
"Two zero four six… zero one."
That awful voice pounded against the insides of Cure Black's skull, and-
-and she was back there, in the Wakabadai underground subway system, on that awful day when the Dusk Zone commanders grew smart enough to surmise that the invincible Precure would be crippled if they were separated from each other. They took Cure White from her, imprisoned her in an offshoot of the Dark World that would consume both her and Mipple from the inside out. They ridiculed Black's frantic efforts as she scoured the city to find her partner. Their mocking voices rang out in concert… whether out loud or in her own head, she could no longer tell:
"All you're really doing is trying to stop this feeling of helplessness. In the end, you, too, think only of yourself. That's right, everything is for your own sake. Just for yourself, and no one else."
"It's pointless, you know. You two have always fought together, but now you're split apart… You must be uneasy. You must be scared. You must be thinking that you can't do anything by yourself."
"You have no future anymore. There is no escape for you. Give up. Soon, she will be swallowed by darkness. While we are fighting, she will completely disappear... You should just disappear as well!"
And now she sat against the wall of the abandoned subway station, lost, hopeless, her head upon her knees. Exhausted. Broken. "Where are you, White…?" she said to herself, in soft, meek tones with none of her usual bluster. "I can't… do anything on my own, after all…"
"What are you saying, ~mepo?" Though they came from the pouch on her hip, Mepple's words of encouragement seemed so far away, as if they were behind layers of glass… "This isn't like you, Black!"
"But…" she whispered, "but we've always been together. My power alone isn't enough. Since we were always together, she'd encourage me. Just because White isn't here, I'm this uncertain of myself… I can't believe this…"
And the voices of the Dusk Zone commanders swirled together, dragging her ever deeper into a deep, deadly miasma:
"All you're really doing is trying to stop this feeling of helplessness."
"This way, you are split apart."
"When you are apart, you no longer have any power."
"Everything you do is for your own sake."
"No," said Black, shivering for warmth. "Leave me alone…"
"Nagi… sa…" Now Mepple's voice was barely audible. His squirming in her pouch slowed to a crawl, and then a stop.
Black felt it. A brief, faint light flickering in the dark, then burning out. When her transformation broke an instant later, it was all the confirmation she needed:
White was gone.
Mipple was gone.
Hope was gone.
"All you're really doing is trying to stop this feeling of helplessness."
"This way, you are split apart."
"When you are apart, you no longer have any power."
"Everything you do is for your own sake."
Now just plain, ordinary Nagisa Misumi, she went limp against the wall, the weight of despair pressing down on her like a thousand pounds of lead… "Mepple," she slurred, barely able to find to energy to even speak. "Mepple, I'm… sorry…"
There was no answer from her fairy partner. He too was gone.
Everyone was gone.
Dimly, Nagisa noticed the dark clouds creeping over her feet and up her legs. They stained her skin the color of a livid bruise, and she felt as if she should cry out in pain, but… but what was the point? She watched it happen. And moments later, when her left arm turned dull violet and indigo from the shoulder down, she watched it happen.
And when that arm fell from its socket moments after that, blackened and shriveled and rotted as a weeks-old vegetable… she watched that happen, too. She didn't feel a thing.
"Two zero four six… zero one."
"Was that-" Cure Twinkle's question died in her mouth before she could even finish it. Her. There was no mistaking that aura of seething blackness, the exquisite but frigid beauty of her pale, perfectly sculpted face and ice blue eyes. Twinkle's Crystal Princess Rod materialized in her hand, already pointed at her as she roared: "Precure Meteor-"
Queen Nehelenia's lips curled into a smile. In rapid succession, she spoke the words: "One. Two. Three."
Not this time. Cutting off her attack in mid-charge, Twinkle dropped and rolled to the right, away from the coffin-shaped slab that sprung out of the floor behind her. A volley of glowing golden stars launched from the Rod… and passed through the Nightmare Queen's body with a barely discernible ripple, as if she were made of water. Twinkle's eyes widened in disbelief. "How-"
Nehelenia clicked the fingers of her remaining hand together. The empty shackles on the slab flew off of it, each attached to thick, dark cords. Curving right in an arc, they flew to Twinkle as if guided by magnetic force, and multiplied… now Twinkle faced not just four shackles, but twelve. More than she could dodge, she had to destroy them. "Meteor Humming!" When she let loose her charge, streams of stars crashed against the shackles, blowing three apart. Nine to go. If- Her thought was cut short as one of the remaining nine swooped in from behind her and closed around her neck, clicking shut and sealing itself into a solid piece. "No…! L-let go of me, you-" Her hands scrabbled for purchase on the smooth, seamless metal. It only grew tighter; her blurred vision as the others pounced, closing around her forearms, her ankles, her wrists… The breath was driven from her body as they all retracted at once and slammed her into the slab, anchoring her there. Still Twinkle fought with all her remaining strength, even as the restraints tightened, cutting off her circulation. It was now even harder to breathe…
"Cure Twinkle," said Nehelenia, not so much walking as gliding closer. "You won't be wriggling out of that, we think."
"G-go to hell, you witch…! Kya~!" An ice-cold hand cracked across her cheek.
The Queen's brows furrowed. "Such distasteful language. And you would call yourself a princess? For shame."
Though her eyes stung with the beginnings of tears, Twinkle glared at her tormentor with all the righteous fury she could muster. "And y-you call yourself a queen. You remind me of someone else I know… you both just love yourselves and let everyone know it..."
"Talk all you wish while you still are able, Cure Twinkle," said Nehelenia, refusing to rise to the bait. "There is no one to help you now. Your punishment will finally commence."
"What are you talking abou- no." Fear drained the color from Twinkle's face. Over the Queen's shoulder, hanging limp in a silvery network of entangling threads, was Towa. Her fiery curls, alabaster skin, and delicate figure were unmistakable. "No, that's not possible... How?!"
Cold satisfaction settled over Nehelenia's features. "Did you think the two of you were safe from us forever? A foolish notion. We left a part of ourselves within her," she said, sliding backward. "Thanks to your actions. We always knew where to find her, it was simply a matter of waiting for the perfect moment."
"Towa-chi… Towa-chi!" Twinkle pulled so hard at her restraints that her consciousness wavered. "Towa-chi, you've gotta wake up, you've gotta fight-"
"A part of ourselves," Nehelenia continued, "that we shall now retrieve. Please witness… the glorious rebirth of Princess Twilight." And with that, Nehelenia plunged her hand into Towa's chest, with no mirrors, no magic, no Lemures, and twisted...
The elfin princess's eyes snapped open in pain and shock, she let out a terrible scream that was only matched by Twinkle's howl of denial… As she watched, helpless, all of the fiery hues left Towa's hair until it was bleached the same color as the threads that held her. Cool blue flames licked over her body, reforming those threads into the shape of a pitch-black gown… it solidified as she fell to the palace floor in a heap, waves of silver hair spread around her like water.
"Towa-chi." This couldn't be happening. Couldn't be real. Twinkle's throat grew tight as she whispered her beloved's pet name, in a desperate hope that it might bring back her real self. "Towa-chi, no. Please, no. Towa-chi…"
"Cure Twinkle." And just as before in the Arthra's infirmary, the voice that answered was not Towa's. Princess Twilight rose from the floor where Towa had fallen, her eyes burning with blue flame and boundless hate. Staggering upright, she reached for Twinkle's neck, her nails once more like claws. "Cure Twinkle… the false princess…"
"We welcome your return, Princess Twilight," said Nehelenia, gliding to her side and laying her restored hand on her shoulder. "This false princess still awaits punishment for disfiguring us. We shall make the others pay in time."
Twilight sneered. There was no trace of Towa's warmth in that expression, nothing of her left. It was like looking at a stranger wearing her face. "And what punishments they shall be, my Queen, but this one… this one must suffer uniquely, I think. Merely destroying her dream is scarcely enough."
"No." Twinkle's words were a broken whisper. "Towa-chi, come back… Please, I love you, please come back…"
"We are agreed." Nehelenia nodded. "This one dreams of being admired for her beauty, does she not? A noble aspiration, but…"
Sinister pleasure spread across Twilight's pale face at the thought. "But beauty is so fragile, my Queen. It takes so little to destroy it." From one of the sleeves of her gown, Twilight withdrew something that caught the ethereal light of the palace with a sinister gleam. A knife, a hideous serrated thing with savage hooked teeth along its cutting edge. "Humans have such bountiful measures to retain or enhance their beauty," she said, holding it up to admire its deadly shape, "but something as simple as this knife would render them futile… It leaves scars that are all but impossible to hide. So efficient, and so effective. The flesh it tears will wither and pucker as it heals… that is, assuming we allow it to heal at all."
Beaming with something akin to motherly pride, Nehelenia smiled. "We could not agree more."
Aghast, Twinkle recoiled in her bonds. This couldn't be real, not even Twilight could be so cruel… "Towa-chi, please! Please, don't! You have to wake up, Towa-chi, you have to fight it!"
The light off the knife's edge reflected Twilight's unfeeling stare. "I think that I shall make an additional cut," she said, bringing it closer millimeter by millimeter to Twinkle's defenseless cheek, "for each and every time you have addressed me by that name…"
"Two zero four six... zero one."
Cure Fortune heard another voice scream before the echoes of the phantom numbers faded from her senses. A voice that tore at her heart, one that she knew anywhere: Maria. Her sister.
"Maria! Onee-sama!" There was no thought for the others; Fortune took off at a run, following the sound, her pulse pounding in her ears. Maria was here. Maria was here, and was alive and herself enough to scream. That meant… if she could only make it in time-
With every step, she saw the end of the battle from years ago. Maria as Cure Tender versus Phantom, the Precure Hunter. Saw the cold glimmer in Phantom's eyes as he caught sight of her, hiding behind the pillar. Saw him draw that terrible sword from his gauntlet, its curved blade burning blood red, and the words forming on his lips that had doomed countless hundreds of others: "Eternal Gauge."
In the memory, all she could do was stare in mute horror as the twin slashes of bloody light from the sword's edge rushed toward her… then a shadow, a much larger figure throwing herself in front of her and spreading her arms wide, offering herself as a human shield. The slashes crashed into Tender, her scream split the air… and she was gone, sealed in a coffin-shaped mirror like all the others Phantom captured, her PreBrace and Change Mirror lying in the dust with wisps of smoke eking from their edges. In a single instant, Iona Hikawa lost her sister, the person she loved and admired most in all the world… and it was all her fault.
Of course she took up Maria's Mirror and Brace, becoming Cure Fortune. Of course she vowed revenge on Phantom and all of the others like him. Of course, with Phantom out of her reach, she took out all her rage and grief at poor Hime, Cure Princess, who far from being responsible for releasing the Empire, was just as much a victim of its cruelty as she and Maria were.
Fortune failed her sister once before, but never again. This time, she had the strength to save her. Corridors flew by her in a blur. Maria's voice grew closer, and along with it, a sound: a grinding, gnashing, clanking sound, every horrible noise she had ever heard a machine make.
There, a door. Fortune was sure of it. Both the screaming and the mechanical noises were loudest from behind it. Fortune plowed her fist through it and tore it off its hinges, rushing through the broken frame: "Onee-sama!"
She caught one brief glimpse of her older sister's frightened eyes.
Then something huge and metallic and sinister came down with a sickening, final slam. Beneath that, a sad, pathetic, wet sound of something soft giving under a much greater, unyielding weight.
Fortune froze in place. Her lungs filled with burning ice that stole her breath away. "Onee… sama…?"
"Two zero four six... zero one."
Chibi-Moon was startled by the terrible voice speaking the numbers, but not scared of it. The second voice, however… the second voice struck her to her core.
Dread crawled up and down her spine with cold, creeping fingers. From when she first heard that someone or something was resurrecting all of their old enemies, she knew, deep in her heart, that this moment was coming. Nothing she could do, nothing anyone said, could completely convince her that he wasn't coming back.
He was there, right there in the hall with her, seated under the folds of a filthy purple-black cloak, his decaying hands ceaselessly moving over a floating crystal ball. There was only darkness beneath the hood of his cloak, but she knew that that darkness hid something more, something worse: the skeletal remains of the being that terrorized her childhood, razed her home, chased her through time, and brainwashed her into his loyal servant… Wiseman. The Death Phantom. Nemesis.
"No." Trembling, Chibi-Moon stumbled backward. "No, you're dead, you're gone! I'm not the little kid I used to be, I'm not afraid of you any more! My friends are-"
"'Friends?' Take a look around you, Small Lady," cackled the Wiseman. "You have no friends here. You have no friends anywhere. You always knew that nothing could keep you from me forever."
"L-Liar!" Chibi-Moon clenched her fists. "I beat you before, I can beat you again!" Her Pink Moon Stick leapt to her hands, she clutched it so tight that she could feel her heartbeat thundering against its handle through her fingertips. "Pink Sugar Heart Attack…!" Its jewel lit up at her call, and a stream of hearts lanced across the hall, plunging into the folds of the Wiseman's cloak…
It did no more to harm him than a gentle breeze. Floating inches above the floor, the Wiseman advanced, those rotted hands moving, always moving… "There is nowhere to run, Small Lady. Nowhere you can hide. I overcame time itself to find you; my death is no obstacle."
"Pink Sugar Heart Attack! P-PINK SUGAR HEART ATTACK!" Each stream of hearts was weaker than the last. Finally, its pulsing stopped altogether.
"Come with me," said the cloaked figure. Ghastly lights shone under his hood where his eyes should have been, briefly illuminating the shape of a cracked, yellowed skull. "Come with me, as you once did. Stand by my side once more, and bring an end to it all."
"Pink… Pink Sugar- Kyaaaa~!" Hands. Copies of those terrible rotting hands sprung up from the floor, seizing hold of her wrists and ankles and squeezing tight. Their touch was foul, damp, earthy, the grip of a freshly exhumed corpse. Chibi-Moon squirmed and flailed in blind panic, rooted to the spot, helpless… "Let go! Let go of me…!"
"That's right." The Wiseman's hood drew close to her face. Fetid vapors washed over her in a noxious cloud, she could suffocate from the smell alone... "Helpless. Even though you've grown, you are still Small Lady. Still nothing but a helpless child. That's all you've ever been. All you'll ever be. The only time in your life when you made any difference at all… was at my side, as Black Lady."
"No, th-that's not-!"
"She still sleeps within you, waiting. Listen closely, you can hear her stirring..."
"Someone, help me! Mamo-chan…! Hotaru…! Usagi…!"
One withered finger rose in front of her and reached for her skull with agonizing slowness. The ghastly lights beneath the hood flashed as it made contact… and Chibi-Moon felt it, the inverse crescent moon mark of the Black Moon Clan burning on her forehead like a searing iron brand. Her Senshi uniform crumbled away as something unstoppable rose from within her and burst forth from her mark, a dark, beautiful, sinister butterfly emerging from the chrysalis of her real form. Black Lady stood, reborn once more…
This time, it was worse than before. This time, Chibi-Moon could still think, see, and feel as her true self, but she remained paralyzed, trapped within Black Lady like a fly entombed in amber. With frozen, unblinking eyes, she watched the dark power course through her hands… she watched as her mere existence began to tear apart time and space… she watched as her friends and loved ones tried desperately to stop her, only to fall one by one… and she watched the Malefic Black Crystal that sustained Black Lady and Wiseman as it grew and grew and grew, until it was the only thing in all the universe that still lived… everything else was consumed or destroyed…
All her fault…
"Two zero four six... zero one."
Between one eyeblink and the next, Sakura Kinomoto found herself elsewhere. She knew the place; this endless field of stars could only be where she first spoke with Clow Reed on the night of the Final Judgment. Now the spirit of Earth's greatest magician walked through the river of the heavens to speak with her once more…
He wasn't smiling.
In every previous encounter she ever had with Clow, whether visiting the past, in an ethereal realm like this one, or in his modern reincarnated form, he always wore the same gentle, mysterious smile, a smile that spoke of a thousand mysteries.
Now Clow was frowning. Frowning at her. The sight terrified her more than monsters, more than Joker, more than anything she could explain. "C-" She tried to speak, clutching the Sealing Wand tight. "C-Clow-san…?"
"Sakura," said Clow. The light of the stars gleamed off the round lenses of his glasses. "I wish we could meet under better circumstances. However…"
"Clow-san," said Sakura, "what's happening?! There… there are people from other worlds, they stole the Cards, and-"
"I am aware," said Clow. "Hence, the problem."
As he spoke, the pinpoints of starlight all around them dimmed, one by one.
"I entrusted the Cards to you, as my chosen successor," said Clow. "I did so because I believed that you would be capable of becoming their master and using their power responsibly."
"I don't understand-"
"There is little to understand." As the stars faded, the light from his lenses grew brighter. "You have allowed the Cards to fall into the hands of those who would use them for chaos and destruction. Untold damage has already been done."
Sakura shrank away from him. "I… I'm trying to-"
"'Trying' is insufficient. The Cards were for your use. They trusted you, as I trusted you, and you have betrayed both their trust and mine." Clow grew, larger and larger, blocking out the field of drying stars, his glasses now resembling blinding floodlights that pinned her to the spot…
"I'm sorry!" Sakura moaned, sinking to her knees. "I'm so sorry, Clow-san, it's all my fault! I should have been stronger, I should have fought harder! I'm sorry..."
And the great magician turned his back on her as the last of the stars burned out, leaving her in the dark. "Disappointing," said Clow. "For all your talent and all your promise, you are still nothing more than a child. Perhaps that is all you ever were… my faith in you was misplaced from the start."
Clow's spirit faded, and Sakura was alone, all alone in a void that surpassed blackness.
She dropped the Sealing Wand...
There was no warning to Joker's reappearance. He didn't even bother to use the door to his chambers, he simply appeared between Viluy and Iron Mouse, the better to keep them on their toes.
"Chuuwaaah~!" Iron Mouse squeaked and fell over backwards onto her still-tender tail, cowering at his presence.
Viluy, of course, was unfazed. One had to have feelings in order to be scared. "Master," she said calmly.
The harlequin beamed from ear to pointed ear. Nothing like a few hours with his Bad End Cures to refresh himself. "Viluy, mon flocon de neige! You bear good tidings, I trust?"
"Indeed, Master," said Viluy, bowing low. "As you predicted, the Cardcaptor has arrived, along with eight others. They are all gathered in the entrance hall-"
Somehow, Joker's grin grew even wider and more grotesque. "And the Insecurity System?"
One of Viluy's eyelids twitched. The system was an ingenious piece of magitech, it deserved a more dignified name, but of course Master Joker had insisted… "Active and functioning at optimal levels. All of the intruders are incapacitated." At her thought, a holoscreen opened before them, with a view of the palace's entrance hall. It painted a grim picture of the nine intruders: Sailor Mars lying flat on her back, her mouth agape in a silent scream. Marine on her knees and bawling like a lost child, with Sakura close by and in a similar but quieter state of despair. Black slumped against a pillar, a puppet with her strings cut. Twinkle clutching at her tear-stained face, shaking her head and mouthing no and Towa-chi over and over. Fortune, Chibi-Moon, Alph, and Neptune simply stood frozen, paralyzed by whatever personal horrors they were experiencing, heedless of the very real danger around them.
"Très bien, très bien!" cackled Joker, clapping his hands. "Ah, that's what I like to hear. If only there were a way to see what's happening inside their pretty little heads right now, all that lovely suffering… Is there anything in your repertoire that can do something like that, flocon?"
"Not at the present. It would require extensive modifications to their brains' cerebral cortexes, Master."
"Pity." Joker shook his head. "You should work on that. I suppose I'll just have to forego that pleasure for now. Let me- eh?" He almost stepped on the quivering figure on the floor to his left as he moved. "Why, Mademoiselle Iron Mouse, pardon my rudeness! I hardly noticed you there. Then again, I hardly notice you at the best of times… you being so small, and all."
"Th-that's a very funny joke, Master," said Iron Mouse with a weak and nervous attempt at a laugh. "H-heh heh heh-"
"It wasn't intended to be." At once, the harlequin's features twisted, and his voice dropped several octaves. Hellish red lights flared within the dark eyes of his mask. "Are you laughing at me, Iron Mouse?"
Squeak. Iron Mouse scrambled back on her rear as far as she could go, until she bumped into the opposite wall. "No, no, Master, not at all, I'm sorry! I'm so sorry! Please f-forgive me…!"
Just like that, Joker beamed again and giggled to himself. "Forgive you? Whatever for? If you can't laugh at a jester, my dear, what can you laugh at? You really should relax a bit, mon petit souris. It was just a joke, after all, and anxiety is terrible for your health. Word of advice."
"Th-thank you, Master…?" Iron Mouse swallowed heavily, and hoped that Joker couldn't hear her heart jackhammering against her ribs.
"Right, then!" His subordinate forgotten, Joker whirled on one heel and clapped his hands. "To the intruders. Reaper, are you there?"
From whatever depths of the palace where it dwelled, the Time Reaper rose out of the floor to its full height, resembling footage of a melting candle in reverse. It was hooded and cloaked and skeletal as ever, its twisted staff in hand.
Joker gazed fondly into the shadows that hid its face. "All recovered, I trust?"
The Reaper said nothing.
"Good," said Joker. "We have guests. Keep Mademoiselle Kinomoto alive. As for the rest… dust them all."
The Reaper said nothing. It turned, and its cloak billowed behind it like a growing storm cloud as it flew down the halls…
While Joker's attention was diverted, Sailor Iron Mouse crawled in the direction of her quarters. It looked to be yet another sleepless night… She was halfway there when a hideous scream from somewhere in the lower floors startled her again and sent her to the floor in a miserable, shivering ball, her eyes shut tight and her hands clamped over her ears. Screams like those were a regular occurrence, but that didn't make them any less upsetting…
"Iron Mouse?" It was difficult to tell how much later it was when someone nudged her with their foot. "What are you doing?"
The small girl cracked open one eye. "Oh-!" Standing over her, arms folded and wearing a frown, was a figure she glimpsed on occasion when wandering the palace with little to do. In truth, she didn't quite fit in with the rest of Dead End in terms of appearance: she wore all blues and whites, with a satin cape that swirled around her ankles when she walked, and she frequently carried an antique-style cutlass at her hip. She spoke little to the others, merely going about her duties as she was given them. A model soldier, and a decent person, as far as she could tell... but that didn't make Iron Mouse any less frightened of her. "M-M-Miki…! I-I'm sorry, I was-"
Sayaka Miki sighed, rolled her eyes, and hauled Iron Mouse upright by the crook of her arm. "Come on, you don't want Master Joker to see you slacking off. If you're not going to do anything about the intruders, get back to your quarters and leave them for the rest of us."
The Lighthouse, Vertex Point Two
Far away, at the precise moment that Sakura's Sealing Wand hit the floor of the former Galactica Palace… The Kinomoto family and extended friends, gathered around an Immaterial facsimile of their dinner table, received a most unwelcome surprise.
In most respects, it had been a normal dinner, or as normal as their dinners went: Sakura made beef and vegetable stew with pudding for dessert, thanks to a supply of replicated groceries from the Arthra. Yukito had fourths. Toya ate two bowls without saying anything before telling her that the stew was quite good, "for a monster", after which Sakura flailed and attempted to push him away from the table. Meilin ate politely and deflected all questions about what was bothering her, and Kero made loud and frequent demands to get to the dessert sooner.
It was in the middle of that dessert that both Yukito and Kero dropped their helpings in mid-bite and stared at Sakura as if she were a stranger.
"You…!" said Kero, a gobbet of his beloved pudding slipping from his tiny mouth.
Yukito said nothing. His spoon made an empty clattering sound as it fell to his plate.
"What is it?" Meilin looked from one face to another in confusion. "Toya-san, Yukito-san, what's the matter?"
Toya's brows furrowed. He couldn't sense it any more, but he understood what had happened right away. There were too many times in the past that this had happened, but this was the first time it ever worked on him or Sakura's furry little partner… which told him right away that something was very, very wrong. He glared across the table at the girl across the table, who blushed and squirmed in her seat, not meeting his gaze.
"It's you, isn't it?" He enunciated each word like a cannon firing: "Answer me. Where. Is. My. Sister?"
"But-" Meilin sputtered. "But Sakura's right there! What are you talking about?!"
"That's not Sakura," said Yukito. He rose from his seat and pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose. For the only time Meilin could remember, he wasn't smiling. "That's the MIRROR."
"H-how…?!" Kero gaped at the MIRROR-Sakura in total confusion. "How could Sakura have switched without us knowin', and how could we not tell until now?"
The MIRROR's eyes glistened with tears. "I'm sorry," she said to them all, unable to look at them. "I'm sorry. She just didn't want you to worry…"
Restricted Access Room, Top Floor
At the same moment that Kerberos and Yukito Tsukishiro felt the foreign presence at their table exposed, the Keeper of the Lighthouse, the being who called herself "Fantine", stood straight up from her seat in the hidden control room nestled at the peak of the Lighthouse's central spire. At once, she knew. With the interruption of the ILLUSION's spell, she could now sense it: who was missing from the Lighthouse, how they had slipped away, and how she had been fooled. Someone, somehow, had found a way to pull the wool over her all-seeing eyes.
At her side, the Stranger, presently wearing the form of Chibi-Chibi, gazed up at her with fear and uncertainty.
"Shit!" Fantine hissed through clenched teeth as she pounded the Immaterial console before her with her fists. "Blessed Mary, Mother of-" She bit the last part off before she could finish the epithet. In a time like this, the last thing everyone needed was for her to alienate another potential ally. Still, the temptation was so great to swear, kick the wall, smash the console, throw the chair across the room, do something pointless and physical and violent. Fantine looked down from the Lighthouse's crown at all the souls under her protection… Nine of those souls were missing, and Heaven only knew if they could be brought back.
Oh, this was bad.
This was, very, very bad.
"Shit," she said, softer this time. "You damned idiots, what have you done…?"
END OF CHAPTER 26