Chapter 28: Behind Enemy Lines

La Fin de Toute

(formerly Galactica Palace)

Energy Conduits

With every step she took, Nagisa Misumi, Cure Black, felt energy thrumming through the metallic floor of the corridor, a deep, rumbling, constant vwoom that traveled up her ankles and nestled somewhere in the base of her spine. It wasn't only the floors, either; a quick examination of the curving, ridged walls confirmed that massive amounts of power ran through their structure as well. Something burning this much energy in Dead End's hands couldn't be anything but bad news. She and Fortune had been wandering for what felt like most of an hour, following the corridor to try to locate its source. This entire area was like being inside a gigantic power cable… Black couldn't shake the fear that if they took one wrong step in here, they would be fried to a crisp. So she and Fortune crept cautiously ahead, keeping their heads low and their senses on alert, taking care not to make any unnecessary contact with the walls or ceiling.

Still no sign of the others. Fortune kept calling them on her Emergency Survival Device at intervals which grew less and less frequent as time went on. Some kind of jamming signal, she surmised. Their test of the ESD's emergency transport feature was a failure, probably for the same reason. For now, it looked as if the only way back to the Miller-Meteor and out of this nightmare was to rejoin the rest of the group and return to the surface on foot… but as long as they could do some damage while they were there, so much the better.

Doing damage. Black demanded herself to focus on that short-term goal, because letting her thoughts wander in the slightest inevitably brought her back to her hallucination. God, every few minutes she still needed to check her arm to make absolutely sure it was still there. The feeling of being so alone, so lost in darkness that she rotted to pieces and didn't even care… it stood out as vivid and sharp as any true memory. That all-consuming sorrow, that deadening apathy as to whether she lived or died…

Black had never thought about clinical depression before. There were rumors that a few of the girls in Verone Academy were diagnosed, but no one ever talked openly about it. That wasn't the Japanese way. Now she had cause to wonder if being depressed, not just having a bad day or feeling sad once in a while but being depressed depressed, felt anything like her hallucination. Not losing an arm, of course, but being lost in that endless fog of perfect, uncaring numbness. If it did… she gained an entirely new level of sympathy for those who suffered from it.

Ahead, Fortune kept going, as strong and unstoppable as ever. Black wondered what she saw in her hallucination, and how it was she was handling it so well.

Iona Hikawa, Cure Fortune, plowed forward with all the stubbornness she was known for. Putting up a strong front, just as she used to when she worked alone for all that time with only Glasan, her fairy partner, by her side. It was easy to slip back into that mode… a little too easy, if she were honest with herself. That Iona, that Fortune, was the one who sent the Phantom Empire running whenever she appeared, the one who was the idol of the school, the one who never faltered and never failed. Right now, becoming that Iona, that Fortune, was the only way she could keep going.

The alternative was to go to pieces and sink into helpless anxiety, for she still wasn't certain whether or not her hallucination had any basis in reality. Maria, Cure Tender, her sister, was brainwashed into her dark form. A puppet for Dead End, along with Mirage and poor Lovely. Who knew what kind of sick torture someone like Joker would visit on them if they were unable to resist? Once he tired of them, would he dispose of them? And Princess or Honey… were they still held prisoner, or...? If she stopped moving, fear would devour her alive.

So she slipped back into her tough, stubborn, cold-hearted Fortune persona, pushing everything else back down. There was time enough for an emotional breakdown later.

Footsteps. Slow, plodding, and irregular, audible even over the persistent hum running through the walls and ceiling. Fortune held out an arm to stop Black, then dropped into a horse stance, fists raised and senses on alert.

Black took a stance that was markedly less focused. She wondered if she should ask Fortune to teach her karate at some point. Hitting things until they stopped moving usually worked well enough for her, but it couldn't hurt to diversify.

A long shadow descended over them. Whoever it was was moving slowly and haltingly, barely able to stand by the looks of it. They staggered into view-

Fortune let out a pained gasp.

Walking with a pronounced limp and cradling a right arm bent at an unnatural angle was an elegant young woman in a Cure uniform in shades of grey and indigo. Her face was gaunt and almost bloodless, drained of life and energy but still a near mirror image of Fortune's. Her eyes, though… her eyes were deadened pain and horror to the point that even the sight of her little sister's face inspired more wariness than relief. "I… Iona…?" As Cure Tender spoke, she reached for Fortune with a trembling hand, then collapsed, her long, dark hair splayed out over her like a blanket.

Black looked from one to the other as realization dawned. "Fortune, is that your-"

Fortune trembled and bit her lip but didn't move, save to hold Black back again. Too soon. Too soon, and too convenient. Her heart yearned to rush to her sister's aid, but every instinct screamed that this was a trap, another cruel trick. God, she hated this, hated being suspicious at the sight of Maria in pain, but after what happened in the entrance hall… Fortune attempted to speak, but her words wouldn't move past the lump in her throat. She swallowed and tried again. "I-if you're really Maria…" she said, "... then what was the first kata you ever taught me…?"

Bleary eyes peered up at her. "Iona-chan, please… help me…"

Fortune didn't budge. "The first kata you taught me. What was it?"

Tender sagged, sank back to the floor, and lay deathly still.

Still the two Precure waited. Seconds ticked by in an agonizing crawl…

And Tender chuckled, just once. "Damn," she said. "You're smarter than you look." To Fortune's horror, her body… melted, dissolving into a shapeless pool of thick, wine-colored fluid. The pool quivered, rose up on a column of itself, and reformed into a featureless feminine body with smooth, gleaming, blank eyes like twin emeralds, clothed only with a yellow bow tie choker clasped with a hexagonal-cut green gemstone. The twin extensions of mass extending from the back of her head were probably supposed to resemble hair, but the way they were spread in an almost perfect V-shape gave the impression of a pair of wings. As her new shape solidified, a black diamond etched itself in the gem's centermost facet. Her emerald eyes fixed on the two, and her lips raised into a cruel smirk. "Hmm. Perhaps I should have changed into Cure White instead… Of the two of you, Black seems easier to fool."

"Why you lousy-" Temper boiled up inside Black like a geyser of hot water. "Who the hell are you? Where are you keeping White and Tender?"

The gelatinous woman bent forward at the waist. "Droid Jamanen, Model-JLX, servant of Lady Viluy of Dead End, at your service. I'm afraid I've been dispatched to stop you here, but I would be happy to escort you to your friends and loved ones. On the Merry-Go-Round, you can spend eternity with them… or whatever's left of it." A flurry of viscous ropes burst from Jamanen's torso...


Experimentation Lab

A thunderous crash followed the dented alloy doors falling inward off their hinges. "There," said Erika Kurumi, Cure Marine, on the other side, beaming with triumph. "Now we're in. Easy as pie."

Alph's ears turned back. "I would have preferred us getting inside without making enough noise to alert the whole palace… but whatever works, I suppose."

Michiru Kaioh, Sailor Neptune, smiled a mischievous smile. "She's certainly not lacking in enthusiasm, we should give her that." How strange, that while she and the Marine shared a common element, they were as different from each other as night and day. Neptune wondered if whoever gave the Cures their powers and designations might have chosen something more appropriate for Marine's temperament than the ocean… fire, perhaps. Or magma. Or explosions, as much as explosions were an element. As strange as it was, Neptune found herself growing quite fond of the little blue-haired firecracker. Loud, stubborn, and impulsive, yes, but also fierce and loyal, and with a heart that wouldn't quit.

"So your scanner thingy says the energy whatevers are coming from here?" said Marine, standing on her tiptoes to get a closer look at Alph's floating holoscreens.

"Some of them, yes," said Alph as she dismissed one screen with a swipe of her hand and called up another, a rough schematic of the conduit lines that led them to this door. "A lot of power is being diverted to this room, but it's not big enough to be anything essential to a place of this size. I think we can rule out that it's for food, water, or life support, at least. Luminous Orb." A tiny ball of light sprouted from the palm of her hand, zoomed into the darkness of the sealed room, and expanded, throwing its contents into sharp relief…

"Oh my God," Marine whispered. For the third time on this mission, she felt like she would be sick.

Alph clenched her fists. A snarl rumbled in the back of her throat.

Neptune said nothing, but the barely perceptible lowering of her brows gave away her disgust.

The room was a laboratory of some kind, but not one any scientist with a shred of decency or rationality would use. Alph's light spell gleamed off of countless razor-sharp chrome implements, all spotlessly clean, all resting at threatening angles over stark white tables in lifeless, austere workspaces. In those, they saw rigidly compartmentalized and separated collections of organic matter, crystalline structures, wires and circuitry, mechanical components, combinations of all of them, and things the three couldn't begin to identify. Each experiment, or whatever it was, was enclosed behind a shimmering barrier of cyan energy.

In the center of the lab, part of what appeared to be the showcase project, a small furry creature's body lay open on a table, its entire torso hollowed out… it looked as if someone had gutted all the stuffing from a teddy bear. It was hard to see from the doorway, but it appeared that all of its internal organs were lined up to either side of it, arranged in rows and columns of near-impossible neatness and straightness. Despite the grisly spectacle, not one tool or instrument they could see bore a speck of blood, dirt, or dust. Given what was done to the creature, the cold sterility of the laboratory was somehow far more horrible than it had any right to be. Even its smell was too clean, not even a whiff of that antiseptic "lab smell" they all remembered too well from school.

"Oh my God," said Marine again, clapping a hand over her mouth. "What is all this?! I-I know it's a science lab or something, but-"

"Whoever did this isn't a scientist," Alph growled. "They're a monster."

Still Neptune said nothing. Professor Souichi Tomoe, Hotaru's father, had once owned a lab much like this, a place where he performed twisted genetic and cybernetic experiments on alien creatures, on his underlings, on animals, on his own daughter, on himself. In one set of her memories, Professor Tomoe was a decent man driven mad with grief, who collaborated with the invaders from the Tao System and became a host for one of them in his desperation to save Hotaru's life. In the other, he was a traitor to his own kind, a heartless man willing to sell out the Earth and every living thing on it in his quest for knowledge, a sick madman who vesselized Hotaru's body not out of desire to save her, but because he regarded her as nothing more than another experiment. Looking at this place, Neptune could only assume that it was the work of someone like the latter timeline's Tomoe.

Trepidation haunted their every step as they moved as one into the lab. Unable to tear her eyes away, Alph made out neat labels over each workspace, printed in ink characters so straight and mechanically perfect that they could have come straight out of a computer. It took her a moment to interpret from Japanese, but she needed no translation for what she saw in one of the workspaces: a ghostly glowing ball of violet light, bobbing in place and pierced through with all manner of wicked needles and wires, more dim and pitiful than any she had seen before. "A Linker Core," she said, her voice hoarse with revulsion.

"A what?" said Marine.

"A Linker Core. It's… it's like an organ, a part of the body that regulates mana in our worlds." She put a hand over her belly, and found herself trembling. "Nanoha and Fate have had theirs drained before, they recovered eventually, but this one… it's been extracted. Cut out of a person altogether. That shouldn't even be possible…"

"I-" Something else across the room caught Marine's eye before she could reply. "No way. That's a… that's somebody's Heart Flower!" So it was: a tall octahedral crystal suspended over a smaller crystal ball, with a day lily sealed inside the larger one, connected to a network of wires as with the Linker Core. Heart Flowers, even when removed from their rightful owners, were supposed to be vividly colored. This one's crystals were a cold, mottled grey, and the lily inside was a pathetic, shriveled thing, withered and brown from roots to petals. When a Desert Apostle stole a Heart Flower, the helpless victim was supposed to be trapped inside the smaller crystal ball in endless sleep… when Erika looked closer at the ball, she saw only bones inside. "Only the Apostles could take those out, a-and that person inside... how?!"

"It's not just those." Neptune's voice took on an edge as sharp as any of the spotless scalpels and tools that surrounded them. In the workspace before her was a Pure Heart Crystal, rammed through with needles and God only knew what else. Formerly deep red and shining from within, the Crystal was now dull and brittle, with hairline cracks running through many of its facets, its glow like a light bulb on the verge of dying. Horrible enough, but she had already seen worse in the other spaces. "She's taken Pure Hearts, Hostes, Dream Mirrors, Star Seeds, Sailor Crystals, and more as well. It seems she's experimenting on them all. Based on the available evidence, I believe we can all tell who is responsible for this madness."

"Viluy." Her name tore itself from Alph's lips, and she all but spat on the floor. "But how is she all doing this, and why?! What purpose does it serve? Does she think-"

"Purpose?" Neptune's laugh was hollow. "If she has one, I don't doubt that it's for her own ends, apart from those of Dead End."

"We gotta get out of here." Marine backed up reflexively. Her Heart Flower had been stolen before, turned into a monster. That memory was awful enough. A Heart Flower was a sacred thing, an embodiment of a person's soul, their hopes and dreams. Someone cruel enough to not just steal souls, but slice them apart in a lab… "We gotta find our friends and get out of here. This place-" Striking something with her hip, she stumbled. Then she screamed.

It was the table in center of the room, the one with the poor hollowed-out teddy-ish thing on it, in the process of being dissected. Upon a closer look, Marine was horrified to see that it was a fairy from one of the Precure worlds. Not one she knew personally, but one that resembled Coffret enough that she recoiled at a glance. It too had wires and tubing desecrating its body, but when she bumped the table… it moved. "N-N-N-Neptune, A-A-Alph-san!"

They rushed to her side, and they too beheld the frail little creature twitching faintly, still alive despite all that Viluy had stolen from it. Primary cardiovascular organ, read the label above the largest intact piece of its innards that lay next to it. And next to that: Pulmonary organs. And Component of digestive system. And Muscle tissue sample, serratus anterior. And Ulnar nerve fibers. And…

"We have to stop her." Low and seething, Alph's voice trembled with barely suppressed rage. "We have to stop her, stop all of this. This is worse than cruel, this is sick."

"Do… do we try to help him?" said Marine, hovering over the fairy. She twirled a lock of cyan hair around one of her fingers, without seeming to notice she was doing so.

"He's too far gone." Neptune shook her head. "Even for healing magic, I would assume. Unless Alph-san can-"

The wolf familiar's pained expression provided the answer, but she spoke anyway. "Healing spells can only do so much. The ones I know can't treat much more than cuts, fractures, minor burns… thinks like that. If we had Shamal here, maybe she could work one of her miracles, but… right now, there's only one thing we can do for him." Alph knelt before the table, clenched her fist, and rammed it through the metallic bulkhead a half-meter below its surface. Feeling around with her fingers, she selected the warmest live cables she could find, bundled them together in her fist, then tore them all free of their housings.

It didn't take long for the fairy to stop twitching after that. Seconds, at most.

Something in the back of the lab shifted. Part of the rearmost wall flickered with holographic distortion, revealing a hidden seam between two plates. With a grinding noise of metal on metal, the plates split apart… doors. Twin lines of running lights flared to life in the darkness beyond them, marking a path.

"Hmm." Neptune crossed her arms, putting a finger to her chin. "A place so secretive that Viluy keeps it hidden from her allies. Could this be where everyone is imprisoned?"

Tossing the cables aside, Alph stood and faced the new passage. "I doubt it, but we should take a look anyway. Marine? Are you okay?" No answer. "Marine?" She looked back over her shoulder…

Gently, Marine reached for the fairy's face. In solemn silence, she closed its eyes for it, then clasped her hands together, her own eyes shut tight.

They waited. When Marine was ready, having finished her prayer and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, the three proceeded into the hidden corridor. Inside, the dark was so pervasive that only Alph could make out more than vague outlines; the running lights were barely enough to keep the others from stumbling.

"Alph-san, what is it? Do you see anything?"

"Round, tall shapes. Cylinders. Batteries, maybe, or some kind of storage."

"Can you do that Luminous Orb spell again?"
"Yeah, sorry. Hang on. Luminous Orb."

Neptune rubbed her eyes as they adjusted to the burst of light. When they cleared, the first thing she made out was the face of Viluy, staring impassively back at her mere inches away. Neptune was not the type to scream, but if there were any occasion to do so… "Deep Aqua Mirror!" Her Talisman was in her hands in an instant-

Marine felt her way forward enough to press herself up close to one of the tall cylindrical things, peering inside it. It was bitterly cold to the touch; she was about to ask what kind of battery would be like that when the light spell detonated, and she found herself face-to-face with not a battery, but a frozen corpse…

Only Alph recognized what they were immediately. She could never forget the first time she saw one, that horrible day on the Artha's bridge when Precia Testarossa revealed what was hidden in her private chamber at the center of the Garden of Time…

Cloning tanks. A dozen of them, each holding inert copies of Viluy in varying stages of development, suspended in bubbling blue liquid. Glowing nanofiber wires snaked from strategic points in the clones' skulls, widening into fat power cables that fed into the walls. And at the back of the chamber, a larger tank, filled with storage capsules hooked up to those same types of cables… Alph looked closer. Each capsule contained what appeared to be strips of human skin. The holographic text on their surfaces made her blood run cold...

SNOWSTORM PROTOCOL

EPIDERMAL/SUBDERMAL TISSUE SAMPLE, HUMAN, EARTH

EXTRACTED FROM SUBJECT #0078

(HYUUGA, S. - MERRY-GO-ROUND)

SNOWSTORM PROTOCOL

EPIDERMAL/SUBDERMAL TISSUE SAMPLE, HUMAN, EARTH

EXTRACTED FROM SUBJECT #0079

(MISHOU, M. - MERRY-GO-ROUND)

SNOWSTORM PROTOCOL

EPIDERMAL/SUBDERMAL TISSUE SAMPLE, HUMAN, EARTH

EXTRACTED FROM SUBJECT #0013

(YAGAMI, H. - UNISONED)

All of Alph's insides shrank as she scanned through the rows and rows of capsules. The ominous words "MERRY-GO-ROUND" appeared over and over and over, but near the top of the tank there was one different, one that Alph both hoped and dreaded to see, displayed slightly apart from the skin samples:

SNOWSTORM PROTOCOL

OCULAR ORGAN, HUMANOID ARTIFICIAL MAGE, MID-CHILDA

EXTRACTED FROM SUBJECT #0118

(F. T. HARLAOWN - CARNAAJI)

"No…" Alph's hoarse whisper was almost inaudible. Fate's eye. That monstrous woman kept Fate's eye like some kind of barbaric trophy… Its remnants bobbed gently up and down in the fluid that filled its capsule. Even from a distance, Alph could tell that it had been picked apart and examined, piece by careful piece.

Shaking like a leaf and looking faintly green, Marine clambered to her feet. "Wh-what… what is she doing here?!"

Shadows black as night grew across Alph's face as she answered. "She's cloning herself, so that she'll keep coming back even if she's killed over and over… and she's growing the clones using raw organic material taken from all of Dead End's prisoners."

"Madness." Even Neptune's eternal calm was shattered by the depths of Viluy's depravity. "There has to be a way to stop her."

"There is, and it's simple." Alph's fangs gleamed in the low light as she smiled a deadly, grim smile. "We're going to blow this whole place straight to hell."


The Depths

"Chibi-Moon, are you okay?"

"Hmm?" Chibi-Usa Tsukino, Sailor Chibi-Moon, looked up at Sakura as if emerging from a dream.

"You've been really quiet since we woke up," said Sakura Kinomoto. She clutched the Sealing Wand with both hands. "If… if what you saw back there is still bothering you, you can always talk to me about it, I don't mind-"

Chibi-Moon tried to smile. Oh, it still bothered her, and most likely it wouldn't stop bothering her until this entire time-space nightmare was safely behind her, if ever. The only thing to be done about the nightmare of Black Lady dredged from her subconscious was to try not to think about it; right now, there was more reason than that to be distracted.

The two of them climbed steadily upward through the rocky tunnel. About a thousand paces back, the metallic bulkheads of the palace's lower floors had given way to raw, bare crags of rock… presumably the foundations of the asteroid that the former Galactica Palace rested on. Having nowhere else to go, and with no way of contacting the others due to the presumed jamming of the ESDs, they pushed onward. The tunnel bored into the rock sloped upward as they went, and was now at a sharp incline, nearly forty-five degrees, like scaling the side of a mountain. Just walking in here wore them down, so the two of them took it slowly.

As a small consolation, at least they weren't being pursued. The bedrock walls conducted sound well enough that they could hear any approaching footsteps, and the tunnel was narrow enough that potential ambushers would be in sight long before they had a chance to surprise them. The only sounds other than their own footfalls and the echoes of their voices were of the inexplicable streams…

On either side, the tunnel was bordered by shallow streams of trickling, crystal-clear water. That of itself was not so unusual, but the streams ran uphill, in apparent defiance of gravity. Chibi-Moon had been daring enough to dip a finger into the waters to confirm it; the sensation of it flowing past her fingertip in the wrong direction gave her chills, but at least it didn't harm her.

Far more disturbing to her was the nagging feeling in the back of her mind, the awful sensation she always got in school when faced with a test question that she knew she should know the answer to but couldn't recall. At the tip of her tongue, teasing her ever since she regained consciousness after the fall. Even Sakura could see it; the Cardcaptor had an impressive eye for anyone in any sort of distress. And here in the near-silence of the tunnel, such an oddly serene, even beautiful place for being in the heart of an enemy fortress, that feeling gnawed at her ever more with little else to distract her.

"It's-" How to even begin without sounding crazy? Chibi-Moon pushed ahead regardless. "Back there, something woke me up from… from whatever that was, and it wasn't any of you."

Sakura blinked. "It wasn't?"

"I could hear your voices and feel Mars shaking me…" Here the pink Senshi rubbed at her cheek. "And I felt Mars slap me, too," she said, just a touch rueful. "But I thought it was all part of the nightmare, that it wasn't real. And then I had this feeling... I can't explain it." Her brows knit together. "Like my brain was telling me I needed to wake up. And the first thing I saw was-" Goosebumps rose on her arms. "-was the Time Reaper flying toward me, and I was too scared to move, and-"

"And then the floor collapsed."

"But that's just it, Sakura-chan!" Now came the really strange part, the part that sounded so ridiculous that even someone as nice as Sakura might think she had lost her mind. "I was out of it, I couldn't move. I should be dead. I was a sitting duck, and it missed. How? And why?"

Frankly, Sakura didn't have a clue. She missed the Reaper's attempted attack on Chibi-Moon entirely when she dived out of its way, and the next thing she knew, the floor was gone and she was in freefall. "Hoeeee~," she murmured, running her thumbs up and down the staff of her wand. "That is weird."

"I feel like there's something I'm missing, something really important, but…" Chibi-Usa took a fistful of cotton candy-pink hair and groaned. "But I just can't think of what it is…"

"You'll figure it out," said Sakura, gently patting her shoulder. "Everything will be all right, somehow."

Chibi-Moon gave her a smile. A tired smile, but nonetheless. "You know, if it were anyone else, that line would sound cheesy, but you… you really make it work. You say stuff like that, and you make me believe it."

"Th-thank you." Sakura's cheeks turned pink. "I just do my best, that's all. It's all I can do, really. I'm not a fighter like the rest of you."

"You can worry about that when the time comes, I guess. Let's keep going."

For a while they climbed the tunnel without speaking, both lost in thought. Gradually, the uphill trickling of the waters grew louder and faster. Here the bedrock in the streambeds was smooth, worn down by time and friction. When they crested a peak, the tilt of the tunnel floor evened out, and they were faced with yet another bizarre sight: both streams flowed into a reverse waterfall, a great sheet of moving water three meters wide, rising to the upper lip of the tunnel's mouth and out of sight.

"I-" Chibi-Moon swallowed. It didn't look dangerous, just weird. "I know I tested the stream before, but don't think I wanna risk walking through that, do you?"

"Mmm-mmm." Sakura shook her head.

"W-well, I don't know how well it's gonna work since the water's falling up, but-" Reaching into pocketspace, Chibi-Moon withdrew Luna P, her faithful companion since childhood, still in its resting form of her wristwatch. "Luna P, Henge!" A pop and a puff of smoke, and the watch resumed its true shape, a floating ball styled with a cartoon of Luna's face.

"Hoeee~!" An excited squeal escaped Sakura, she couldn't help herself. "Chibi-Moon, what is that? It's so cute!"

Now it was her turn to blush. "That's Luna P. Sailor Mercury made it for me when I was a baby, back home in the 30th century… I, uh, used to carry it around all the time as a kid, but-"

Sakura barely heard her; she was too absorbed in examining the floating toy from every possible angle. "Ohhh, I wish Tomoyo-chan were here! Her mom runs a toy company, I bet she'd get some great ideas from this…"

"Hey, where I come from, it's nothing special, believe me." False modesty aside, Chibi-Moon couldn't help but be delighted by proxy. "If you think it's great now, just watch this." Forming an image in her mind, Chibi-Moon closed her eyes. "Luna P Magic! Abracadabra Pon!"

Her command was accepted. Luna P hovered over to the reverse waterfall. One pop, flash, and puff of smoke later, it metamorphosed into an oversized umbrella emblazoned with Luna P's eternal smile, and turned itself upside down to block the rising water.

Sakura broke into polite applause.

"Oh, stop. Now you're just embarrassing me." Chuckling and turning even redder, Chibi-Moon took her comrade's hand, and together they stepped over the Luna P-umbrella's rim. A bit of spray fell (rose?) on them both, but there seemed to be no adverse effects from it. The other side was clear and relatively dry, a curving natural balcony of sorts with only empty air visible past its lip. Together they moved to the edge and peered over…

Sakura's stomach dropped. "What… what is this place...?"

Beyond the lip was a vast crater, miles wide, and in that crater lay a city, a vast metropolis somehow squeezed into an enormous stone cavern. Every building on every block was topped with harsh angles and spires, edges so severe that they looked as if they could cut flesh like paper. The streets, the buildings, everything was made of the same substance, something like whorls of smoke trapped in ice… not quite solid, yet somehow impossibly sharp. From their position on the lip, they could made out doors, windows, lamp posts, sidewalks, paved streets, parks, alleyways, every feature that a populated place should have… and yet there was not a single living being to be seen. The entire city hung in perfect, motionless silence.

"This…" said Sakura, her words coming out as a dry croak. "This isn't possible. It doesn't make sense! This city, or whatever it is… it's got to be at least ten times the size of the asteroid the palace is built on…"

Chibi-Moon took a few steps back, rubbing her numb arms in an attempt to restore feeling to them. "S-some kind of spatial field, it has to be. That's the only explanation."

"But what is it? What is it doing here? What is it for? How did-"

"It's called Jamais Ville," said a new voice behind them. "As for what it's for… I couldn't tell you even if I knew."

Both girls shrieked and grabbed for their wands.

The new arrival pointing cutlasses them was dressed all in blues and whites, and looked somewhat like a European noblewoman, complete with a white satin cape. Her cerulean eyes narrowed at them both, her mouth was a thin, hard line. "All right, you two," she said. "Don't move. I'm going to ask you both a question. For your sakes, you'd better give me the right answer. Is Madoka with you?"

"Huh?" Chibi-Moon gaped at her. Sure, she had swords trained on them, but this one hardly looked like someone from Dead End, and didn't feel like one either…

"Madoka," Sayaka snapped. "Madoka Kaname. I'm Sayaka Miki, I'm her friend. Is she here with you or not?"

"S-she-" stammered Sakura. She tried again. "M-Madoka-chan isn't here, no…"

"Good. Is she safe?"

Silence, as Sakura and Chibi-Moon stared at each other without comprehension.

Two cutlass points poked their chests, hard. "Is. She. Safe?"

"She's safe, she's safe!" cried Sakura, throwing up her hands. "She's with Akemi-san-"

At that name, Sayaka's face contorted, her features drew tight and dark with rage. "You-" she sputtered in disbelief, "You let her... into your base…?! You let her near Madoka?!" The Puella Magi raised her blades, as if to cleave them both in two. "You stupid idiots, don't you know who she is?! Don't you know what she's done?!"

The display of sheer hatred made Sakura shrink back. "But… but she saved Madoka-chan from Joker!"

"Idiot!" Sayaka's voice built to a roar, and a cobalt aura seethed from her body like the beginnings of a hurricane. "That girl… it's all her fault! Everything's her fault! Everything Madoka's been through! She could have just died, she could have just faded away like she was supposed to, but she-"

"You don't understand! Madoka-chan lost her powers, Akemi-san is keeping her safe-"

"She stole Madoka's powers!" Something enormous loomed out of the reverse waterfall behind Sayaka's back as she howled her fury. It was a hulking, armored, monstrous shape, holding a cutlass the size of a car... "That filthy, stinking traitor… that bitch… Madoka trusted her, sacrificed everything for her, and she tore her apart…!"


Energy Conduits

Fighting Jamanen was like trying to fight water. To Cure Fortune and Cure Black, it quickly became apparent that the gelatinous Droid had full control over not just her shape, but her viscosity, her density, every aspect of every part of her being. When punching or kicking her, there was no way to tell by sight whether the blow would bounce off her mass as if it were made of rubber, or if it would harden to something like concrete and absorb it, leaving them thrown off balance with limbs stinging from the rebound. Energy attacks were no good either; Jamanen simply opened gaping holes in her body when she saw them coming, allowing Fortune's shots to pass through her harmlessly.

All the while, Jamanen cackled at them, attacking without a shred of remorse or restraint, secure in her invulnerability. She could be anywhere, sinking herself into one surface only to reappear somewhere completely other. Her tendrils could lash out at random from the corridor's floors, its walls, its ceilings… all while she struck at them with her main body, her arms sharpened and tapered into twin sword blades, blunt instruments, or any one of dozens of other deadly shapes. Slipping past her was all but impossible; their progress down the corridor was not only halted, but they found themselves driven far back the way they came, farther from their goal than ever.

"This is getting us nowhere," Fortune huffed, wiping sweat from her brow. "How on earth are we supposed to beat her?"

"No clue." Wincing, Black massaged her shoulder. One stray tendril seized her wrist some minutes ago, and with hideous strength it slammed her into a wall so hard that it damn near dislocated her arm. What saved her from the current running through that wall, she didn't know. Perhaps this area was more insulated.

Jamanen's laughter rang off the metallic wall. She hid in some surface, neither of them knew which one, toying with them while she waited for the perfect moment to mount another assault...

"If Princess were here…" said Fortune, wincing at the thought of her lost teammate. "She could freeze her with her Sherbet Ballet form and we could shatter her…"

"Yeah, well, Princess isn't here, is she?!" Black stamped her foot and dented a floor panel in the process. "Neither is Aqua, Beauty, Diamond, Mermaid, or whoever the hell else has ice powers, so I guess we're pretty much screwed!"

"Calm down, sempai. We'll think of something."

"You could always just give up, you know." The Droid's voice seemed to come from multiple directions at once, with no clear source. "Let me devour you and I'll take you to your friends. I wonder how you'll taste…" More mocking laughter, a cacophony bubbling over them in waves…

"Shut up!" On impulse, Black ripped up the dented floor panel and hurled it down the corridor. It clattered harmlessly as it touched down twenty meters away.

"There's still one trick I haven't tried." Fortune spoke in a low voice as she leaned close to Black's ear. "It's really risky, but it might get us past her."

"I'm game for anything at this point. What have you got?"

"I'll need you to draw her attention, then-" The rest was delivered in a whisper.

"Crap." Fortune was right: her plan was risky, if not insane. Hardly an option, but better than no options at all. All she could do was punch, kick, and throw things, and none of those were effective against the Droid. Being superhumanly strong and tough was about all that Black had going for her without White at her side.

When you are apart, you no longer have any power. The echo of one of the Dark Seeds' voices lanced through her brain, and reflexively she grasped at her left arm and squeezed. Feeling useless without her partner had almost cost her her life twice now. This was no time to brood. "Okay, let's do it."

The two Precure stood back to back, then sprung apart, taking positions about three meters from each other. Seconds ticked by as they waited for their foe's next move…

The wait wasn't long. Only the faint rippling movement at Black's feet saved her as Jamanen emerged from the floor directly beneath her, blade-arms spread wide. A flying leap took her out of reach of the blades, but more tendrils erupted from the panels to follow her, one after another after another, tapered to spike-like points. Black bent and swerved out of the way as each one burst out at her, bending backward almost double when one came far too close to skewering her through the stomach.

"Come now, just dodging isn't any fun." Jamenen sounded almost bored. "The longer you draw this out, the longer it'll take to see your precious Honoka again…"

The words stung Black like a slap in the face. She skidded backwards in a three-point stance, the soles of her boots emitting high-pitched squeals as they grated against the floor panels. Her hand balled into a tight fist… "Don't you dare say her name, you-"

"Aha!" Seizing her chance, the Droid threw out an arm. It stretched like taffy across the corridor, her hand grasped Black's fist and morphed around it, swallowing it whole. More hands sprung from the walls and floor, grasping and molding themselves around her ankles and her opposite wrist.

Jamanen's s grip on her was ungodly strong… Fear flickered over Black's face as she struggled in place, pinned to the spot like a butterfly in a mounting case. "Gah, let go, dammit…!"

"And now for that taste," Jamanen drawled, slowly oozing forward. "I can't wait…"

All the panic dropped from the black Cure's face at once, replaced with an audacious grin. "Fortune, NOW!"

A violet blur and a wild kiai behind them. Jamanen turned just a bit too late… Like a comet, Fortune soared the length of the corridor, wings extended and fist aglow with power. That fist slammed into the Droid with an impact that would have crushed stone to dust… but Jamanen simply smirked and took the blow, allowing Fortune's hand to break her surface and sink into her belly, slowing her charge to a halt. "Really, now," she said, smirking. "Was that the best plan you could come up with?"

"No," said Fortune, elbow-deep in Droid ooze but bizarrely untroubled by it. In fact, she smiled… "This was. Fortune Starburst!" Her fist burned hot and bright… and Jamanen had time for a split-second expression of dawning comprehension before the power stored inside that fist exploded with a flash of light and a muffled roar. Jamanen burst apart, splattering both Cures and blanketing a two-meter stretch of the corridor with wine-colored slime.

"Gross!" Black gagged and tore herself free of the melting tendrils, then set about trying to wipe the residue off her gloves and boots. "Yeah, maybe not the best plan. Messy, but at least it worked."

"Are you all right?" said Fortune, making an attempt to shake off her arm with little success.

"I will be after a long shower. Though I might have to settle for hosing myself down..." Grimacing, Black flicked the top of her hip pouch… but gently, so as not to wake Mepple. "Still can't transform back to normal until I know White's out of danger."

"Right." Fortune nodded. "Let's go find her, and Honey and the others too. We have to be getting close, if they sent someone that strong."

Black moved to rejoin her.

She took no more than a step before a translucent, dusky red wall of fluid slammed into place between them, bisecting the corridor. In the space of a second, it solidified itself...

"Black!" Fortune saw her on the other side, already throwing blows at its surface. Before she could do the same, the floor wriggled beneath her. Geysers erupted from the panel at her feet, swallowing her legs up to her knees. Tendrils from the ceiling engulfed both her arms and yanked them apart. Caught in a spread-eagled position like a bug in a spider's web, she could do little but watch as Jamanen reformed from out of the wall's surface, none the worse for wear…

"Clever," she said, smirking wider and crueler than ever as she circled her prey. "Clever and strong. The other one is too tough and bitter for me, but you… you're just the right mix of sweet and sour, I think."

"I hope you don't think I'll go down easy..." Calm. She had to stay calm, let her captor gloat and give Black time to break through the wall. Fortune pushed down her fear and set her expression, keeping her eyes on the Droid's every move.

"Brave," purred the Droid. "But futile. How long do you think you can last without your friend?"

"As long as it takes. I'll make sure you choke on me." Fortune strained against her bonds, but the gel thickened to consistency of tar, clinging to her and snapping her limbs back into place no matter which way she pulled. More tendrils rose from Jamanen's mass and slowly, delicately encircled her waist, then her neck. Once wrapped around her, they melted together into solid form, then grew heavy, crushing, depriving her of breath with their weight… Aghast, Fortune clamped her lips shut tight. As long as she could still breathe through her nose, she would be all right. Whatever happened, she would never give this monster the satisfaction of-

"Ohohoho, and stubborn!" Jamanen said with a bubbly chuckle. "I like you, Cure Fortune, there's fire inside you… this will be fun."

Fortune's stomach turned with disgust, but still she glared at the Droid with all the defiance she could muster. The air was being pressed out of her, bit by tiny bit, and the weight on her stomach and neck prevented her from refilling her lungs enough to breathe, but to give into this thing would be infinitely worse. Jamanen's tendrils grew tighter, like the coils of a snake, strangling her… Fortune pulled so hard she feared her muscles would tear, and managed to rip one hand free of the slime. She clawed at tendril one around her neck, but her fingers found no purchase in the fluid, slipping through it harmlessly, and the effort expended too much air. At a twirl of the Droid's finger, her wrist was seized again, swallowed, and pulled away. Another, smaller tendril descended and hovered before her face, then split in two and pinched her nostrils shut.

"Oh dear, oh dear." Jamanen hovered closer, closer. "No more air. Your time's running out…"

Fortune could see herself reflected in the Droid's jeweled eyes. Only so long she could hold it before she had to inhale. Black, hurry… Faint lights hovered at the edges of her vision, dying fireflies… through Jamanen's translucent body, she made out the shape of Black pounding at the wall of solidified ooze that separated them, shouting curses, but Fortune couldn't make out her words. Her lungs were tight and empty, she burned inside, more lights clouded her eyes and filled her brain, she needed air… Just one breath, one quick lungful of oxygen, enough to keep fighting. Fortune gasped-

A rush, an unstoppable battering ram of viscous fluid, a cloying, sickening, artificial strawberry taste - the strawberry flavoring of a dentist's mold. Past her lips, past her teeth, cutting off all but the bare minimum of her air. At the back of her throat, surging down into her stomach, inescapable. She knew it would kill her, and yet she couldn't stop herself from trying to breathe something. All that she inhaled was more, more of the Droid. Drowning in her.

I'm dying.

She's killing me.

I'll never see Maria again. I'll never save her, never save Megumi, or Hime, or Yuko.

I'm going to die… Whether by suffocation, by choking, by the Droid bursting her from within, or from the unceasing agony of being forced to take in far more than any human body could hold. Fortune couldn't move, couldn't scream, couldn't fight back, could barely think. More and more of Jamanen's mass dove into her mouth, and though she already seemed at a breaking point, a hair's breadth from exploding, still the flood went on… more and more and more...

"Fortune! Fortune!" Black hammered the wall in a relentless rhythm, her knuckles bruising, her bones crying out in protest. All that accomplished was spreading hairline cracks through the surface, but like hell would she stop. Not while that monster was still trying to drown Fortune, smother her to death, whatever it was she was doing. Through the wall, Black saw her comrade's struggles slowing, petering out as her strength faded… A raging storm brewed inside her as she channeled all that anger, all that fury into her fists, intent on breaking through this damned wall by sheer force of will if she had to…

The cracks spread and widened into fissures. Craters formed at the points of impact. And Black kept going, her aura igniting as the wall gave way. Her next blow made it shudder, the next one made it crumble, and the one after that blew a two-meter hole straight through it. "FORTUNE!" Howling her name like a battle cry, Black burst through and scrambled up to where Fortune hung suspended. "Fortune, hang on! Just hang on, I've got you!"

Fortune seemed barely conscious. Her violet eyes were dull and unfocused, her complexion ghastly pale verging on chalk-white…

Working in a frenzy, Black clawed at the tendrils binding her, tearing great pieces away. The choking tendril she grasped with both hands, then throttled until it stopped squirming and yanked as hard as she could until it came loose. Fortune fell limp into her arms and didn't move. "No," said Black, shaking her. "C'mon, Fortune, wake up, please be okay!"

No answer. Fortune's head lolled to one side. She wasn't breathing...

"Fortune! Iona! You can't leave me like this, I can't do this on my own! Dammit, wake up!"

And as Black watched in helpless horror, Fortune's body turned thin and translucent… and melted, slipping between her clutching fingers to dribble into a wine-colored, human-sized pool on the floor.

"No." Black shook her head in disbelief and sank to her knees. "No. No. Iona, you can't-"

No answer.

Gone.

I failed her. The thought rang in her brain like the tolling of a great church bell. I failed her, just like I failed Honoka. I couldn't do anything...

In the awful silence that followed, it took Black's stunned senses a few minutes to cut through the fog of despair and notice the pool stirring. "Wh-"

A hand. The shape of a human hand broke the pool's surface, fingers clawing drunkenly at the air before it lost its stability and melted once more. Ripples spread through it, and soon the hand was back, attached to an arm. Then a shoulder, a head, a torso… and the pool gathered itself up into the nude upper body of a translucent, violet-tinged, gelatinous Cure Fortune, who fell forward onto her hands and half-formed knees…

Black couldn't speak, couldn't move. She only stared.

"Buh," said the gel-Fortune in a distorted, watery voice. Her shape wobbled at the edges, not quite solid. "B-Black…"

Black still couldn't speak.

Slowly the bizarre creature opened her eyes… round, blank, and solid green, like emeralds. "I…" she said, shuddering. "I feel… strange…"

"Fuh… Fortune…?" Slowly, tentatively, hardly daring to believe it, Black reached for her. "Is that… is that really you?"

Fortune reached for her in turn… and halfway through that motion, her fingers curled into a fist. Her arm stretched outward like rubber and curved in a graceful arc, her mass hardened, and her knuckles crashed into the side of Black's jaw. Caught completely off guard, her comrade went flying and plowed through the remnants of the wall. "Black…!"

"Impressive," said a leering, bubbly voice. "I didn't think you'd be able to return to that shape so quickly." A second, much larger pool of slime from the remnants of Fortune's restraints shifted, and Jamanen's shape rose from within it.

"You!" Fortune slipped, lost control, and sank an inch or two into the formless puddle that composed her lower half. "What… what did you do to me?!"

Groaning, Black sat up, her jaw on fire. At least one tooth felt loose. "What the hell-" A fluid shadow and Fortune's shout of alarm were her only warnings for the next incoming blow, as once again her comrade's fist sailed through space and slammed into her like a meteor strike. Another hit to her stomach, knocking the wind out of her. And another, and another. Fortune was attacking her, trying to kill her, why, it didn't make sense-

"Black, I'm so sorry!" Fortune's voice grew raw with panic as some unseen force drew her up, up into an upright position on a column of herself. Her arms moved to her sides, and her body froze in place, petrified and standing at attention… "It's not me, it's not me, I swear! Please, get up!"

"Look at you, you're almost perfect," said the Droid, sliding up behind her and nodding with satisfaction. "You just need one final touch." A long, flat shape formed in her palm...

Black lay half-conscious in a haze of pain, barely comprehending what was happening. Fortune, Jamanen turned Fortune into a monster like herself, but that just wasn't possible. How could it be real? I can't…The thought was muddled, slow to move through her brain. I really can't… do anything… on my own… Stars erupted in her eyes as she attempted to push herself upright. Fortune, Fortune was in trouble, she had to do something…

"Black!" Helpless. Unable to move. Her body transformed into something obscene, something entirely under the Droid's control. And Jamanen was tying something around her neck that she couldn't see, slowly, taking all the time in the world, knowing she could do nothing to stop it. Fortune's jeweled eyes fixed on Black, lying there beaten and bloody by her own hands. "Black, listen to me, you've got to run! Get back to the others and finish the mission! If you find Cure Honey, she can-" Jamanen's hands moved away, and somehow she felt more than saw that it was a yellow bowtie choker fastened around her neck, identical to the one the Droid wore. Speaking freely became harder than ever, there was something sizzling in her throat, pushing to the surface and stealing her words away. "Sh-she can-!"

A massive jolt of dark energy thundered through her body in the same instant that the gem solidified on her neck. An insidious, creeping numbness spread outward from it in waves, spreading down her shoulders to the tips of her fingers, up and down her back, crawling up her neck and settling over her mind like a dense fog. That numbness encroached on her being, smothering her very sense of self in its embrace. Relax, it seemed to whisper. Just let go. Everything's all right now.

No, no, I've got to fight it! Fortune's will pushed back against it with all she had left, but just moving, just thinking, exhausted her. Her energy dwindled away... I can't let her control me, I've got to-

Relax, whispered the numbness, seductive, insidious, welcoming. There's nothing to worry about. Just go to sleep. You must be tired...

Tired… Slipping, sinking down into into an ocean of unfeeling. I've got to… fight it...

Rest, Iona. You can't fight when you're so tired. Just rest…

… rest…

That's it.

Fortune's expression turned blank and inert. All the spirit left in her emerald eyes faded. In the centermost facet of the gem on her collar, a black diamond etched itself in place.

"And that's that!" said Jamanen, drawing back with a flourish. "Can you hear me, Drone Fortune?"

"Yes." Her answer was flat and monotone. No hesitation, no resistance.

"And do you see that human before you?"

A cold gleam shone in Fortune's eyes as she looked down at where Black lay pale and shaken, too horrified to speak. "Yes."

"And do you recognize that she is your enemy?"

"Yes."

"Good. And as my drone, you know what should be done, I trust…?"

This time, Fortune said nothing. As she slid toward Black, her forearms changed shape, lengthening, thinning, and sharpening into twin blades.

END OF CHAPTER 28