Chapter 29: Reinforcements

TSAB L-Class Inspection Cruiser Arthra

Main Bridge

A dense cluster of people hovered around Cadet Amy Limietta's chair in front of the central console on the Arthra's main bridge. Their presence induced a claustrophobic effect in the young communications officer; the bridge had never been so crowded before, not to mention noisy. Everyone, it seemed, had a different idea as to what to do and how to proceed… the many faces bathed in the holo-viewer's pale glow, human, near-human, and otherwise, were uniformly strained.

"The question isn't finding the rescue team and the missing pod," said Chrono Harlaown, Admiral Lindy's son and the ship's executive officer. His trademark stoic glare had darkened into a full-on scowl since the truth about "Operation Batman" was revealed. "Scrya and Umino confessed everything. We know where they are, there's just no feasible way of bringing them back."

"The hell there ain't!" snapped the winged golden teddy bear across from him, Kerberos, otherwise known as Kero-chan, the Guardian Beast of the Clow Cards. "Yer tellin' me that with a Lighthouse full of magical girls and a whole ship of professional mages, there's nobody who can do anything?! Come on, kid, there's gotta be somethin' we can do!"

"Don't call me 'kid'. And any action we take risks exposing ourselves and the Lighthouse to Dead End's forces. It's a miracle that they haven't tracked us down already."

The black cat sitting on the far end of Amy's console was next to speak. "I'm afraid I have to concur with Chrono-kun," said Luna. "Opening a spatial warp is one thing, but opening one without letting anyone else through is quite another. Even if we could do so, Galactica Palace is heavily shielded."

"So we go in guns blazin' and take the shields down!"

"Absolutely not." Admiral Lindy Harlaown's face bore worry lines that weren't there a month ago. "The Artha is in no shape to mount an assault, and we have first-hand evidence of what that Viluy woman can do to TSAB mages. Attacking directly would be suicide."

"A full frontal assault isn't an option," said Nanoha Takamachi, who had not let go of her partner's hand since she heard the news about the rescue mission. "But Lindy-san, surely there's some option we can take, some way to help them!"

"I don't care what it is." Fate Testarossa Harlaown squeezed Nanoha's hand in her own as she stared up at her foster mother, her remaining eye unblinking. "Any viable strategy, no matter how risky, should be on the table right now. You've heard what Fantine said: we cannot allow Joker to capture Sakura Kinomoto, under any circumstances. If any one of the Three is lost, it's all over."

Toward the back of the bridge, two others watched the argument, unable to participate. Neither had any experience with the proposed kind of battle, they could offer no advice or strategy to the TSAB mages, much as they desired to help.

Usagi Tsukino was one of those two, standing and watching the back-and-forth with blue eyes trembling on the edge of tears. It wasn't fair; all this argument over Sakura, Madoka, and herself, so many more people contemplating throwing themselves into danger for their sakes. So many sacrifices already, and for what? For two sweet kids far too gentle and kind to be thrown into a war for existence, and for an immature twenty-one-year-old crybaby who couldn't do anything by herself.

Everyone thought she was so strong. Sailor Moon, the Senshi who fought evil and saved the Earth time and time again, and the universe a fair number of times too. This pillar of strength, this icon that the others saw… that wasn't her. It was an image, a façade that only barely held up when her friends and loved ones were there to support her. Now her supports were slipping through her grasp, one by one: first Ami, Makoto, Haruka, and Mamoru, and now Rei, Michiru, and Chibi-Usa… If they were all here, all around and behind her, then maybe she could have the courage to do something, to step in and save the day, but without them? Without them, the façade crumbled.

Madoka Kaname's attention bounced back and forth like a ball in a table tennis match, following each voice in the small crowd gathered around the console, then back to Usagi next to her. Many of the specifics of the argument were beyond her, but she gathered that the issue was how to extract Sakura and the rescue team without exposing themselves and the Lighthouse to attack. The phrase "the Three" kept being tossed around, referring to herself, Sakura, and Usagi.

Usagi was important, she understood. Madoka wasn't familiar with the exploits of the legendary Sailor Moon herself, but Rei and many of the Precure told her stories… stories of the clumsy schoolgirl who rose from the humblest and unlikeliest of beginnings to become a champion feared by all the forces of evil throughout her universe. From her conversations with Usagi, Madoka could see that under the surface of the sweet, goofy, exuberant young woman beat a heart of gold and a will of steel. Even if she couldn't see it herself, Usagi was a warrior and a natural leader.

Sakura was important, she understood. She heard from Kero-chan, Meilin, and Toya's friend Yukito about all the incredible trials that she went through to succeed the great magician Clow Reed: facing down forces of nature and enormous magical creatures, saving her town from disaster on multiple occasions, and enduring the joy and heartbreak of first love, all the while following a plan that Clow laid out in meticulous detail centuries before she was even born. Sakura was no fighter, that much Madoka had seen for herself, but in terms of power and diversity of skill, she left all of them behind even with a third of her Cards missing. She might seem timid and easily flustered, but watching her command the Cards for any length of time made it clear: Sakura Kinomoto was a force to be reckoned with.

So that left herself: Madoka Kaname, schoolgirl and Puella Magi-in-training, and that was it. Once supposedly the greatest of all, at least according to Homura and Fantine, though she saw none of that potential in herself. Sure, she could transform on command and hit targets roughly sixty percent of the time, and it had been days since she set anything on fire with her bow or arrows by accident, but did she really deserve to be mentioned in the company of Sailor Moon and the Cardcaptor? Sometimes Madoka wondered if this all was some kind of cruel joke. She was, by any sane standard, ordinary. Even in her Puella Magi form, she was a small fry compared to the others who could fly, toss fireballs, summon storms, break through walls singlehanded, or heal the dying. What good would a bow and flaming arrows do against an army led by a monster who could put out a star at will?

No good at all, she thought miserably as she clutched at her skirt. Waves of conversation washed over and past her as she stewed in place. They were wrong about her, they had to be. If she had any kind of special power at all, let alone power that made her "the greatest", she would be using it right now to bring Sakura and the others back. Even Usagi was stymied for what to do, and Usagi was a legend in three different times! What could poor, timid, useless Madoka do?

Nothing. Nothing at all.

But there was someone who could help. Someone far more worthy than herself of being called "the greatest". Someone who had already demonstrated the ability to escape from impossible danger. She could help, Madoka knew she could…

Getting her to agree to help, now that was the trick. But if anyone could convince her… maybe she could be good for something after all, Madoka thought. "I have to go," she muttered to Usagi.

"Madoka-chan?" Usagi cast her eyes downward to the girl in the blood-spattered school uniform. Madoka had worn an expression of near-constant worry ever since the meeting at the Crossroads, but now there was an odd calm and determination in her rose-colored eyes, a glimmer of an idea. "Madoka-chan, you can't be thinking of-"

"No," said Madoka with a trembling smile. "I know better than to go out by myself. There's someone here who can help, someone strong enough to save Sakura-chan and everyone. She's stubborn, but she'll listen to me, I know she will. Just let me talk to her. Tell Lindy-san and the others not to worry, we can bring them back!"

Before Usagi could hold out a hand to stop her, Madoka turned and ran to the main transport pad at the aft of the bridge. The crew of the Arthra had the pads to voice control now, given all the new civilian passengers coming and going... it was against standard security protocol, but with the TSAB decimated, protocol hardly mattered anymore. Beaming, Madoka announced to thin air: "Take me back to the Lighthouse!" A flash, a glimmer, and she was gone.

The Lighthouse

Inter-Vertex Corridors

"I'm sure it'll be all right," said Yui Nanase as they walked the smooth, rounded passageway from Vertex Three together. "We shouldn't have to ask permission. I mean, Tomoe-san and Tsukino-san - er, Chibi-Usa-san - have their own room, and so do Kaname-san and Akemi-san."

A reddish tinge colored Yayoi Kise's cheeks as she squeezed Yui's hand a little tighter. "I-I just want to be sure it's okay. I mean, I'd hate you to have to move all your stuff off of the Arthra only to move it all back again."

"I don't have that much stuff to begin with, so it's not a problem," said Yui. "Just my easel and my canvases, paints, and brushes. Oh, and the replicator I made them with, if I can manage it."

"You have one of those?"

"Just a basic model, but it makes a pretty good cup of tea."

Yayoi grinned in a way that Yui now recognized meant a joke was incoming. "Tea? Was it 'Earl Grey, hot?'" she said, failing to suppress a giggle.

That was a good one, Yui had to admit. "All right," she laughed. "I confess: I tried it, just a couple of times. I couldn't resist."

"Did you do the voice too?"

Now it was Yui's turn to blush. "Of course not!" After an uncomfortable pregnant pause, she scratched her cheek and looked away. "... Maybe once."

"I'm rubbing off on you, Yui-chan!" Yayoi lit up with sunshine, delighted by the prospect. "Just you wait… if you like Star Trek, you'll probably love Mouretsu Pirates! There's also Cowboy Bebop, and Tokusou Sentai Dekaranger, and Firefly... oh, and Doctor Who, of course, and maybe Farscape, and-"

"All right, all right, don't get carried away!" Adorable as it was, Yui knew by now that Yayoi's list of recommendations could go on for hours once she got going. Thankfully, she could give as good as she got. "We'll watch some of those, but I'd like you to check out at least few episodes of Record of Lodoss War and Utena… and Buffy. I'll try more sci-fi if you try more fantasy, is that a deal?"

"It's a deal!"

They shook on it.

Running footsteps beat a rhythm against the floor at the other end of the hall. Yayoi and Yui ended their handshake faster than they normally would have and pressed themselves against the gently curving walls opposite each other as Madoka Kaname went streaking past them, red-faced and panting with exertion. "Hello, Nanase-san, Kise-san! Excuse me, beg your pardon, I gotta go!" she said, all in one breath.

Yayoi stared as Madoka's back receded down the hall. "Was… was that Kaname-san? Where's she going in such a hurry?"

Yui shrugged. "Must be awfully important, whatever it is."

La Fin de Toute

(formerly Galactica Palace)

Communications Hub

Joker stood with his arms folded in the center of an eclectic array of equipment: everything from magic mirrors to chunky CRT monitors and radio receivers to state-of-the-art TSAB subspace ansible systems with holographic imagers, all present and accounted for, and all shoved into the same room on one of the palace's uppermost levels. It was Viluy's idea, of course. The only way to keep in contact with of all of Dead End's forces as they spread throughout the multiverse was to incorporate every manner of communication system possible, both magical and technological, both cutting-edge and obsolete. After all, the worlds and species to be conquered ran the entire spectrum of development.

"Really, my dear," said Joker to a figure on one of dozens of HD LCD displays, "if there is a resistance developing among the town's civilians, you and Tender should go ahead and quash it, shouldn't you? Honestly, it's not a hard decision to make."

On the display, Unlovely grinned and brushed back a strand of deep red hair. "I thought that would be the case, Master, but I wanted to be sure. Thank you."

"You know what to do. If they don't respond to threats, gather up a few dozen children and torture them a bit. Do it in public where they can be seen, and give the conspirators a taste of what their disobedience will cost them. Savez-vous?"

"Oui, Master Joker." Unlovely giggled at the thought. "I'll keep you updated. Unlovely out."

As the signal cut off, Joker sighed and traced his claws over the X-shaped scar in his mask. It would be quicker and easier to just destroy all their homes and planets and be done with it, he knew, but keeping those places under occupation in the absence of their various Senshi, Precure, mages, and Puellae Magi protectors was safer in the long run. If the sparkly little twits had nothing left to lose, they could become dangerous. Logistically, though, the multiple occupations were trials that left him with pounding headaches and foul moods.

The harlequin's mood brightened immensely when the telltale ripple of an interdimensional transport spell swept over his skin. The immense power signature attached to that spell could only mean one thing: the Will was back.

Sure enough, a revolving triangle of ancient Belkan runes shone on the floor of the communications hub, casting a purplish glow that reflected in the hundreds of monitors. The Will of the Book of Darkness materialized in a streak of black-and-violet light… and collapsed, unable to stand. Her bedraggled wings shed a few dozen black feathers as she shuddered in a heap.

"Well?" said Joker by way of greeting. "Progress report, s'il vous plâit."

"Master," gasped the Will as she looked up at him. There were dark shadows beneath her eyes. "Both missions were successful… though not without considerable effort."

"But you did find it, didn't you?" The eyes of Joker's mask gleamed with naked hunger. "The real one, you're certain of it?"

The Will closed her eyes and reached into her personal storage dimension. From it she withdrew a sealed black cube composed of thousands of layers of protective barriers stacked atop each other. Even for her, finding and retrieving this object was incredibly taxing and dangerous; it took fully three-quarters of her gargantuan mana supply just to travel far and deep enough to reach it. Constructing and maintaining enough barriers to keep it sealed left her with barely enough mana to make the return trip. Not even the Will of the Book of Darkness in Unison form had unlimited power, much as her legends seemed to state otherwise.

Joker found himself holding his breath as the Will disengaged the protective barriers that sealed the object, one by one. Finally, finally, this could be it. In truth, the loss of the Infinity Library was a devastating blow to this mission; it was the only place left in all the multiverse that might have had the information he needed. Sending the Will out into time and space to search for the artifact was a last resort, a desperate gamble with potentially disastrous consequences. But with this, if indeed it was the genuine article, he would no longer need the Infinity Library's information. Having all that priceless, forbidden knowledge in his grasp would make everything easier, of course, but this artifact was priceless beyond priceless.

The last few barriers unlocked and folded out of sight, and the revealed artifact bathed the communications hub in an eerie, pulsing vermillion glow. If there was any doubt left in either Joker or the Will, the aura that seethed from the artifact banished it. That aura churned and twisted and stirred like a living thing, awesome and terrifying…

"Magnificent," whispered Joker, reaching out to take the artifact in his hands. "You really did find it…." It appeared to be a crystalline sculpture of some kind, roughly the size of a soccer ball, but it moved like nothing as solid as crystal could. Its shape was ever-shifting, a mass of curling tongues and tendrils, and it shone from within with a fiery radiance, as if a red dwarf star were trapped inside it. One only had to be in its presence to feel the incalculable power that the artifact possessed, it prickled on bare skin like the unfiltered rays of a sun, both astoundingly beautiful and obscenely deadly… and there was nothing else like it in the entirety of time and space, for all traces of this artifact and what created it were supposed to be excised from all realities in the most thorough way possible.

If Joker had any understanding of the concept of human spirituality, he might describe holding the artifact and gazing into its glow as a religious experience. It gave him a delightful frisson to think about: here, in his hands, was possibly the most dangerous thing in all of existence… and it was his at last.

"Master Joker," said the Will, hesitant to interrupt but compelled to give the rest of her report. "My second target was acquired with little difficulty. What shall I do with her?"

Joker didn't look up; it wasn't clear if he was even able to. "She's in stasis, I assume?" he said.

"Yes, Master."

"Good," said Joker, still entranced by the artifact. "Keep her that way, and lock her in a holding cell. There will be plenty of time to play with her later."

"Yes, Master."

"You've done well, Will. Very well indeed. Go rest and recharge your mana, you've earned a respite."

"Of course, Master."

22nd Floor, Sector Iota

South-Southwest Corridor #318

Sailor Iron Mouse's revelation of the Merry-Go-Round's purpose didn't have the impact she expected. The Merry-Go-Round was a construct of ultimate terror, a weapon capable of rendering entire universes worse than null and void; she thought its secret would prompt screaming from the heroes, or tears… or gasping, at least.

Instead, Mars and Twinkle stared at each other and cocked their eyebrows without speaking.

After a moment, Kirara Amanogawa, Cure Twinkle, put a hand to her mouth to stifle an incredulous snort of laughter. "You're… you're kidding, right?"

Unamused, Rei Hino, Sailor Mars, grabbed Iron Mouse by her collar and scowled. "Nice try, Mouse. For your sake, I hope you have something better than that."

Iron Mouse flailed her arms in panic. "It's true, it's true, I swear! That's what I heard! The Merry-Go-Round negates existence!"

"Oh, come on." Twinkle put her hands on her hips. "Destroying the universe? Even if you're not lying, and even if that weren't the oldest supervillain cliché in the book, what's the point? You destroy the universe, then there's nothing left to rule over. A five-year-old could tell you that."

"Listen…!" Iron Mouse's grey eyes brimmed with tears. Her one chance to escape this madhouse was slipping away from her. "Please, just listen to me! I know how it sounds, okay? I served under Sailor Galaxia, and she almost pulled it off! L-look, I'll be honest with you: most people like us like to talk about destroying the universe, but it's all a bluff. You know? 'Blah blah blah, triumphing over the light, eternal darkness,' that's just villain locker room talk. Trying to show off. Most of us aren't crazy enough to actually try it. L-l-like you said, what would be the point? Anyone who ended the universe would be ending themselves along with it." Iron Mouse swallowed heavily and fixed Mars with what she prayed was a stare of utmost sincerity. "But then every once in a while, somebody or something comes along and it's not all talk. They're really, honestly not kidding. They really are that crazy. They really want to destroy everything, even themselves. I swear to you, Mars, by Lady Galaxia's name: Joker is that crazy."

And Mars felt a sinister chill from looking into those big, frightened, watery eyes, because there was no trace of doubt or deception in them. Iron Mouse believed, truly believed, in the truth of what she was saying.

"But-" Twinkle stammered, her flippant attitude badly shaken. "But e-even if he could… h-how? How could just one weapon possibly do something like that?"

"I t-told you, that's what the prisoners are for," said Iron Mouse. "He's got hundreds of them hooked up to it, magical girls from every universe. You should know as well as anybody that magical girls can make the impossible happen. And he has that horrible Book of Darkness thing, and its Will and her Master, to give it all the power it needs. Th-that's all I know, honest. I'll l-lead you to it, but only if you promise to take me with you when you leave…"

Mars was silent. Here quivering in front of her was not the devious and murderous little menace she remembered from the war with Shadow Galactica, but a frightened and helpless child, desperate to get away from the nightmares she had seen. Iron Mouse was telling the truth, or at least she thought she was, and though this entire encounter with her still seemed too convenient, like a trap waiting to be sprung… there was still a chance, no matter how small, that it wasn't a trap, and that the tiny false Senshi would stay true to her word.

I've got a bad feeling about this, thought both aspects of Rei Hino in concert. Aloud, she said, "All right, get up and keep your hands behind your head where we can see them. You'll be in front of us the whole way."

Iron Mouse whined and complied, miserably rising to her feet. Of course. She suspected as much.

Experimentation Lab

"Restrict Lock." The cold voice burst from every one of the lab's communication systems at once, before its owner even bothered to appear in person. Alph, Neptune, and Marine only had time to share a mutual look of alarm before-

Glowing wheels of ivory light snapped closed around the trio's wrists and violently hauled them upward. A second salvo bound their ankles and left them all suspended six inches off the floor. Strung up and helpless in midair, they could only watch as the woman with the snow-white hair strode past the lab's ruined double doors, still lying on the floor where Marine left them. Pale blue eyes regarded them with all the warmth and color of chips of ice. "Well. The three of you have certainly made a nuisance of yourselves," Viluy sniffed. "I hope you feel proud of your accomplishments, feeble as they are."

"Stick it in your ear, you-!" Marine roared, thrashing in her restraints.

"Ah yes," said Viluy, calling up a holographic screen from her chrome gauntlet and scanning its information in lieu of looking at Marine herself. "Erika Kurumi, Cure Marine. A native of Kibougahana, Japan, Vertex Three, Facet Five. Daughter of Ryuunosuke and Sakura Kurumi, younger sibling of Momoka Kurumi. Age, fifteen years. Birthdate, May 26th. Blood type, B+..."

Marine blanched in appalled disgust. Having her personal information, her life, rattled off tonelessly like a legal disclaimer, and by someone right in front of her who wouldn't even bother to look her in the eye… being seen naked would have felt less violating.

"And you," said Viluy, turning in Neptune's direction without glancing up. "You I remember. Michiru Kaioh, Sailor Neptune. Resident of Azabu-Juuban, Japan, Vertex One. Age, twenty-three years. Birthdate, March 6th. Blood type, O+. Domestic and sexual partner of Haruka Tennoh, alias Sailor Uranus."

With supreme effort, Neptune kept her voice calm and neutral. "I wouldn't go peeking at my file if I were you, Viluy," she said, then added with a tight little smirk: "You might see a few things in there that would shock you."

Viluy dismissed her and moved on to her third prisoner. "Now you I find interesting... Official TSAB designation NFN NMI Alph, native animal of Mid-Childa, Vertex Four. Age, eighteen years. Birthdate, Year 0049 on the Mid-Childan calendar, exact date unknown… contracted to Fate Testarossa as a familiar in Year 0063, is that right?" Finally she tore her gaze from her holo screen. "So, the dog disobeyed orders and came out of hiding to avenge its poor, crippled master. Quaint."

Alph bared her fangs and snarled, her ears flattening. "Talk while you can, you bitch. I promise I'll have your head for what you've done!"

"An insult even I can appreciate, given its source. Regardless, if you are referring to the organ that I sampled from Testarossa, I assure you it was put to far better use than she ever could hope to make of it," said Viluy. "She should consider it an honor."

Outraged, Alph roared and gnashed her jaws at Viluy's face, just inches out of her reach.

The Witch didn't even blink. "Now then. Since I assume that none of you are willing to assist in the capture of your comrades and the harvesting of their data-" Marine and Alph both interrupted to tell Viluy exactly what she could do with her data, in so many words, but she ignored them. "- I suppose I shall have the Will manufacture more Relics for you. A temporary measure, until Master Joker has the time to alter your natures permanently."

Alph grinned, long, slow, and cruel. "And what makes you think you'll have time for that? We were expecting you to come here... counting on it, actually. If you think you're leaving this room alive, you're badly mistaken."

Viluy would have yawned, had she not removed that useless function from her biology weeks prior. "If you are referring to the plasma detonation spells you planted throughout my lab and cloning facility, I must inform you that this entire facility has been integrated with Anti Magilink Field generators for just such a purpose. Your mana has been steadily eroding since the moment you set foot inside my doors." Again Viluy sniffed. "Honestly, even a simple mongrel like yourself should have realized that I would anticipate your plan and devise effective countermeasures."

Alph's face paled, and her pupils shrank... but only for a moment. "Then I guess it's a good thing we had a backup plan. Marine?"

Marine cut an almost comical sight: her cheeks were puffed out, and her eyes were screwed tightly shut. A cyan aura built from inside her body, her skin and hair shone with it, and tiny glowing lines of light gathered in front of the heart-shaped brooch at the center of her uniform. She shook and trembled in her restraints like a teakettle about to overboil…

Viluy managed three concerned steps backward.

Marine let loose the attack she had been charging in secret ever since Alph noticed the difficulty she had had forming and placing her plasma charges ten minutes earlier. Alph recognized the effects of an AMF, but the inherent flaw of such technology was that it was designed to affect the Linker Core, the source of a mage's mana. Linker Cores did not exist outside of Vertex Four, so when Marine bellowed the invocation for her attack, it went off with full, devastating force: "MARINE… DYNAMITE!"

A sphere of cyan light erupted from the Precure's body, expanding outward to sweep every corner of the lab. The shockwave alone smashed most of Viluy's twisted experiments, the light turned what was left of them to vapor. That same light triggered the remnants of Alph's plasma charges, significantly weakened and cut off from their caster, but still active enough to cause a chain reaction, ripping through whatever corners of the lab that Marine's explosion failed to effect.

Viluy was blasted off her feet and into the bulkhead behind her with enough force to snap three of her ribs like twigs. The Restrict Lock spell, crafted to ignore the effects of the AMF, could only last as long as her concentration maintained it. A sudden burst of pain, pain she was not prepared for, broke her focus. The spell faded, her prisoners dropped free, and the debris of the collapsing lab bounced harmlessly off the barrier that Neptune erected over the three of them. Dust rained down, metal screamed, torn wires sparked and waved back and forth like headless snakes, and through dust and fire and destruction, Viluy met the eyes of the Testarossa girl's familiar, glowing cobalt with righteous fury. She ensconced herself in her own barrier, directed her nanobots to deliver a burst of painkillers as they set to work repairing her damaged ribs, and rose to her feet. They would pay for making a fool of her, and for the loss of all her data, all her work...

Seeing her stand, Marine balled her fists and made to charge-

"No," said Alph, holding out a hand to stop her. "Stay behind the barrier. She's mine." And Alph became an orange blur, streaking through the ruins of the lab with her claws aimed at Viluy's throat.

Their clash was brutal, savage, primal in its simplicity. No more tricks, no more traps, no more words, only the Witch and the familiar trying to tear each other apart. Viluy shaped her nanotech gauntlet into scything claws and raked Alph's side, drawing first blood, but before she could make a second strike Alph's hand closed around her wrist. She was dragged along as the wolf-woman leaped high into the smoking, melted rafters… Alph's body crackled with vermillion fire as she drew her hated foe into a crushing embrace, then spun as she plummeted back down, slamming the Witch head first into the charred steel floor. Even that wasn't enough to put her down; silver nanotech tendrils snaked from Viluy's gauntlet and snatched Alph by the neck while their master lay stunned and bleeding. They tossed her like a rag doll into a bank of broken monitors, but Alph was barely slowed. A chilling howl tore itself from her throat as she sprung back up, bleeding in a dozen places but still refusing to stop…

Behind Neptune's barrier, Marine watched in a mixture of awe and horror. "Holy crap... Neptune, shouldn't we stop her? She's totally lost it!"

Neptune shook her head. Her eyes followed every movement of the battle as it raged through the wreckage. If it was Haruka who had been paralyzed, maimed, and put into intensive care, and if the one responsible had gone on to commit half the atrocities Viluy had done afterward… it would be her trying out there to beat the Witch to death with her bare hands, and no one would stand in her way.

Despite her injuries, Viluy felt herself slowly gaining the upper hand. The mongrel was too enraged to fight effectively; its raw power and ferocity were a threat, yes, but Viluy had in spades what it did not: wisdom. Intellect. Data, and the ability to use it effectively. Already she could see the patterns forming in the mongrel's attacks. It was only a matter of dodging effectively, and waiting for the right moment to strike back. Her nanobots worked dutifully at her mental command, constructing a new weapon out of base elements, drawing materials from every piece of shattered tech and remnant of ruined experiment that she could touch. In the end, the dog was only an animal, a stupid thing acting on base instincts, fooling itself into thinking it was equal to the humans it attached itself to. Viluy was far more than human, and in short order, she would prove it.

Alph saw nothing but the Witch, felt nothing but burning hatred and the desire to make her pay. Her entire being was liquid fire, poured into a mold and shaped with the express purpose of making her enemy suffer. With every blow she took, she saw the holo-footage of Viluy ripping out Fate's eye. With every blow she dealt, she thought of the girl who was her master, who had saved her life, who only deserved peace and happiness for all the suffering she had been through. Viluy destroyed that peace, and Viluy had to pay with blood. Alph made another grab for her throat, but somehow Viluy slid to the side, smiling that damnable smile. Her nanotech gauntlet extended a wicked needle from its index finger, it gleamed in the light of the flames consuming the lab. And somehow Viluy was behind her, and- "AAAAAAAAAAAAAGH-" Agony. Acid coursing through her as something long and thin and sharp sank into the base of her skull, followed by an insidious coldness, a foreign substance flooding her veins… Alph stumbled, her limbs spasmed, not working right-

"I suspected that you might come looking for revenge, dog," said Viluy, withdrawing the bloodied needle from her opponent's brainstem as its body fell. "I took the liberty of preparing a special countermeasure with you in mind. I studied your data, your history, in the TSAB's databanks… Testarossa saved you when you were exiled. They cast you out so that the sickness that was killing you would not affect the others in your pack. Testarossa took your soul from your dying body and placed it into a new form, a construct of her mana, binding you to her service… I knew an ordinary injection would not be enough. So I devised a curse, modeled closely after the disease that nearly killed you before. A synthetic pseudo-virus, designed to target your brain and nervous system instantly. You may recognize the symptoms… not just from that virus you contracted, but a wide range of neurological maladies: Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. Transmissible spongiform encephalopathy. Canine distemper. The effects of methamphetamine abuse. And Rabies lyssavirus, of course. It's a masterpiece."

Alph couldn't speak. She lay twitching on the floor, rivers of magma scouring her insides… She thought she heard Marine screaming, and Viluy was still talking, but-

"Of course, I would not be surprised if you failed to comprehend all of that," said Viluy, kneeling over her. "It was very technical. In terms you may find it easier to understand…" Here she leaned over Alph's ear and whispered. "My pseudo-virus will kill your reason and melt your brain away, until you are less and lowlier than the dumb animal that you were at the beginning of your wretched life. And it will keep you alive and angry as you turn your savagery upon your comrades, your loved ones, your precious master… anyone or anything alive that has the misfortune to cross your path. When you finally expire, alone, incoherent, and drooling, you will not even know that you slaughtered everyone you hold dear."

Alph's chest rose and fell slowly. Her eyes stared straight ahead, unfocused…

Viluy's lips curled into a cold, dead smile. "In a way, it's almost... beautiful."

A flash, a blur of vermillion. The wolf-woman that Viluy was certain was rendered incompetent sprung up… and shifted, her nose and mouth elongating into a fanged snout, her body sprouting a mane of orange and crimson fur, her claws lengthening into curving knives as her fingers swelled and blunted into heavy paws. She moved like lightning, slamming her whole weight into Viluy, hard enough that she skidded backwards, through the hidden archway on the back wall and into the wreckage of one of her own cloning tanks. Transparent plasteel shattered and fell upon her in vicious, stinging shards… She shrieked and put up an energy shield around herself…

"Barrier Break." Four crescent-shaped slashes of light cut through a cloud of smoke and tore her shield to pieces. Alph's voice was distorted, low and guttural as it issued from the wolf's mouth. "Should've studied your data a little harder… that's my signature spell."

Stunned, disbelieving, Viluy scrambled to right herself, her limbs slipping in the puddle of stasis fluid leaking from the tank. It was impossible, inconceivable. Her pseudo-virus was crafted so perfectly, how could-

The wolf pounced out of the flames in a graceful arc, and landed upon her with a force that drove all the breath from her lungs. Something in Viluy's chest stabbed into her, white-hot, she lost consciousness for a few precious seconds… and then it came rushing back as the wolf's razor-sharp claws raked the right side of her face. Half her vision went dark, the foul beast had taken her eye-

"Thought it was only fitting," Alph snarled. "Like the old Earth saying. Almost want to leave you like this, but… promised myself." The fanged maw leaned down and parted…

Impossible, Viluy thought. It's impossible. My data was wrong? I miscalculated?

I… miscalcula-

The wolf's jaws clamped shut, and twisted…

The teeth at her throat did not pierce. Rear lupine teeth were not designed to shear at a bite, some part of her reminded her. They were designed to tear. She even expected the twist at the end. She'd always assumed it would be the end of the pain. That at those final moments, it would be fast.

It wasn't.

From the rubble of the cloning facility, Neptune and Marine heard only silence… an awful, pregnant silence that was far more frightening than the noise of battle seconds before. Senshi and Precure raised their arms and prepared attacks as a humanoid shape staggered through the half-fallen arch, covered in blood and cast in flickering shadow by firelight…

"Hey," said Alph, in human form once more. Her ears drooped, her tail dragged listless behind her, and she walked as if she still carried a great weight upon her shoulders. She tripped and nearly fell as the two came running. "I'll… I'll be fine, just need to… recharge my mana enough for a few healing spells."

"Are you kidding?!" Marine all but squealed. "That witch stuck a freaking huge needle in the back of your head! You are not fine!"

"I agree," said Neptune, easing an arm around Alph to hold her up. "You need rest and medical attention, immediately."

Alph chuckled, a dark and weary sound. "Not much chance of that, if the ESDs are still-"

As if on cue, the three Emergency Survival Devices attached at the trio's waists chimed at once. All of them started; the Devices had been jammed since they set foot inside the palace, and they had forgotten they were there.

Marine snatched hers and held it up to her lips like a microphone, apparently oblivious to the fact that the Device was perfectly capable of picking up her voice at a distance. "Oi! Hello? Anybody there? This is Cure Marine, we're here in Viluy's science lab! … Or what's left of it. Where are you guys?" Before anyone could respond, she looked back at Neptune and Alph. "Oh, right, you're supposed to say 'Over' when it's all official and stuff, right?" And back to the Device: "Um, this is Marine, over!"

"This is Cure Black," said the Precure leader's feisty voice on the other end. "Looks like you guys disabled the field that was jamming us, good job. Listen, transport spells are still blocked, but I'm sending you our location anyway, you've all gotta get down here ASAP. Fortune and I found the Merry-Go-Round, and the people that are missing… most of them are here."