Chapter 32: Regroup and Counterattack
Restricted Access Room, Top Floor
The Lighthouse Keeper, the entity calling herself Fantine, never left the secret, sealed control room atop the tallest spire of the Lighthouse. Too much depended on her: the time streams of the multiverse had to be monitored, the Lighthouse residents had to be sheltered, and she herself had to be kept hidden away from any and all. Some would call her paranoid, but if they only knew the truth, if they only knew anything about who Fantine really was and what kind of powers she possessed… they would say there was no such thing as being paranoid. Knowing who Fantine truly was would instantly make her the primary target for Joker and his entire Dead End forces, for in all likelihood, she could end the war for existence by herself in an instant.
If they only knew. If they only knew what she was capable of, the sins she had committed. But no one knew, and no one could know. Not ever.
Fantine recognized that the control room would likely be her home for all of eternity. Fair enough; she had no real reason to leave. She was well beyond the simple biological needs of the humans, humanoids, and assorted beings under her care. There was no need for entertainment when one could watch the entire scope of the infinite multiverse at once from her vantage point. Social contact? Well, truthfully, there was a lack of that; only the Stranger could visit her up there, because the Stranger had no words to speak that could possibly betray her. The rest she could only talk to and interact with through her holographic avatar. Lonely? Yes, sometimes, but it was better that way.
At that moment, for one of the only times in her service as Lighthouse Keeper, Fantine wished that she could leave her station. If she were able, she would be in Madoka Kaname and Homura Akemi's room in Vertex Point Five. More to the point, she suspected her hands would be clasped in prayer as she pleaded Homura to listen to reason.
For Fantine felt the self-proclaimed Devil's heart wavering, and that frightened her as very little else could.
Vertex Point Five
You can't, said Fantine through the comm crystal, speaking directly to Homura's thoughts. Whatever you're considering, Miss Akemi, whatever you're planning, you need to forget it.
Homura's scratched at the surface of the comm crystal at her side with her fingernail. Her face was a cold, immobile mask as she watched Madoka weep into a pillow on her bed across the room. Wasn't it you who told me that the rest of them needed hope?
I did, and they do, said Fantine, but what you're considering would jeopardize us all, including Madoka.
The way I see it, Homura thought, we are all already in jeopardy. At least one of the rescue team is already lost.
A mental cringe. I know, but—
It's safe to assume she has already informed Dead End of the existence of the Lighthouse.
I'm aware of the possibility. There's nothing we can do to stop her from telling them about this place and what its purpose is, but thankfully, the information she has about it is minimal.
Nevertheless, we're at least one step closer to annihilation. Admit it, Fantine… Homura suppressed a smirk. You're desperate.
She could almost see the winged blue spark swelling up with righteous indignation. Not so desperate that I'd let you do whatever you want!
Well, then. Outside of my intervention, what other alternatives are there?
There was a long, long pause. We wait. Wait, and pray that the rescue team can escape by themselves.
Homura brushed back her hair. I didn't think you the kind of person to sit and wait for miracles to happen.
Nor am I. In my experience, miracles only come at a steep price.
Homura switched the comm crystal off. Her thoughts were her own again. For good measure, she closed off her mind from all the other telepathic channels she knew of. Anything else Fantine had to say, she could say it aloud or not at all.
Across the room, Madoka let out a weak sob. Homura briefly considered walking over to lay a comforting hand on her shoulder, but the last time she tried that, Madoka flinched away from her touch… an action that hurt Homura more than she would admit to herself. So she settled for simply watching from a distance and trying to prevent any further harm or misery from befalling her. It was a familiar situation. Too familiar. Madoka was mere meters from her, yet she might as well be on the other side of a vast divide.
While her physical eyes watched her best friend cry, her mind's eye watched events taking place inside Dead End's fortress. Joker's damned Isolation Fields blocked much of her vision with dense, dark clouds, but she could make out enough: tiny multicolored points of light flitted from place to place within a vast, inky blackness, scattered from each other and frantic to gather up again.
What few details Homura could make out when she looked closer were not encouraging.
La Fin de Toute
(formerly Galactica Palace)
38th Floor, Sector Kappa
A white, quaking ball of fluff skidded to a near-stop in front of the narrow gap between two enormous plasteel storage blocks, each the size of an apartment complex. Without breaking a step, and without ever stopping her recitation of the three words she had been repeating over and over at various volumes since the chase began, she threw herself into the darkness of the gap and curled up tight, trying to make herself as small as possible as she babbled to no one in particular.
Seconds later, two more figures followed the rough path of her flight, both sweating and winded, both only a little less terrified.
"Dammit, Twinkle," wheezed Rei Hino, Sailor Mars, wincing at the stitch building in her size, "why do all the monsters from your worlds have to be so big?!"
Kirara Amanogawa, Cure Twinkle, took a brief moment to lean against one of the blocks and catch her breath. "Look," she said, glaring at her comrade. "I told you, we fight monsters. Not the technicolor freak show rejects you guys fight, I specifically said 'We fight monsters.' What did you think that meant?!"
"Demons!" said Mars. "Evil spirits! Yokai, maybe! Not that thing!"
The three-word mantra floated out of Sailor Iron Mouse's hiding spot.
Mars groaned and rapped her knuckles on the block nearest her. "Will you shut up already, Mouse? You'll lead it right to us!"
"Um." Twinkle spoke in a small voice. "Too late."
An immense shadow fell over them. Claws like sabers glinted in the cold fluorescent light and sheared neatly through the storage block's reinforced plasteel as if it were made of paper. A triangular section of the block larger than a tractor trailer slid off at an angle and fell with a bone-rattling crash. Blank, staring eyes set in an angular feline face framed by bones peered over the remainder of the ruined block. Pointed ears perked and swiveled backward as the monster let out a growl that shook the metal floor beneath their feet: "Negatoooone~..."
And yet again, Iron Mouse wailed her mantra to anyone who would listen: "IhatecatsIhatecatsIhatecatsIhatecaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaats!"
"SHUT UP!" shouted Mars and Twinkle in chorus. Both raised their fists, but the cat Negatone had already proven to be to tough enough to shrug off physical attacks and nimble enough to dodge magical ones…
"Neeeega~..." Once more, the Negatone raised its mighty paw, spreading its claws wide. No room to dodge, and nowhere else to run. Its face remained inert, but they could almost feel it smiling...
… and with a CRACK like a heavy branch breaking, a fiery vermillion comet slammed into the base of the Negatone's neck and propelled it across the storage facility, into the opposite wall.
"Alph-san!" said Mars, hardly daring to believe it.
"Miss Fluffy…!" Twinkle gaped as she took in the familiar's blood-soaked hair and clothes. "Geez, what happened to you?! You look like you went through a slaughterhouse!"
"I don't want to talk about it," said Alph as she touched back down to the floor and brushed herself off. "What are you two doing here? We were all supposed to meet up with Black and Fortune, didn't you get their message?"
"We were heading that way," said Mars, shooting a bitter glare back at the gap where Iron Mouse still hid, "but when we ran into that thing, our prisoner took off like a shot in the wrong direction."
Watery grey eyes peeked around the edge of the storage block. "I-i-is it gone…? Chuwaaaa~!"
The tiny false Senshi had no time to flee again; Alph was upon her in an instant. "Prisoner?" she said with a grimace as she hauled Iron Mouse out into the light and lifted her a half-meter off the floor by her collar. "Seems to me like prisoners are more trouble than they're worth on this mission. Especially if they put us in danger."
Iron Mouse's arms and legs pinwheeled in a blur of motion. The familiar's words were horrible enough; seeing her caked in blood sent her into a full breakdown. "Let go, let go! I don't wanna get eaten! Mars, don't let her eat me, pleeeease!"
"I'd stay quiet if I were you." Alph's features split into a wolfish grin. "I've still got a bad taste in my mouth from dealing with that science bitch, so I wouldn't turn down a second helping as a palate cleanser."
That quieted Iron Mouse in a hurry.
"Easy, Alph-san," said Mars, reaching out to lay a hand on her shoulder. "I'm not too fond of Iron Mouse either, but she surrendered to us, and she offered to lead us to that Merry-Go-Round thing if we get her out of here."
"And you believe her?!" Alph snorted and pulled away from her touch. Her fingers tightened on her terrified quarry. "She's Dead End. You didn't see what we saw up there in the lab... They all have to pay for what they've done."
"Hey." Twinkle's brows furrowed. "We're the good guys, Miss Fluffy. That's not our style."
For a few seconds—some of the longest few seconds of Iron Mouse's life—it seemed as if Alph didn't care one bit about what the "good guys" were supposed to do. She waited, sweating ice-cold bullets, simultaneously dreading the fatal blow and wanting to get it over with...
"Tch." Finally, Alph made a sound of abject disgust and let Iron Mouse drop. "You probably aren't worth the energy anyway. Better pray I don't regret this, Mouse."
Iron Mouse dove for the safety of the nearest cover she could reach: behind Mars's legs. "Y-yes, ma'am! No, ma'am! Th-thank you, ma'am! Y-y-you won't r-regret it, I s-swear!"
Twinkle rolled her eyes. "So where are Neptune and Marine?"
"Outside the doors, keeping watch," said Alph.
"So that just leaves Chibi-Moon and Sakura unaccounted for, right?" Mars fidgeted with her ESD. "When I checked the tracker a few minutes ago, I got readings from Black and Fortune, they're still on the lower levels, but those two…"
"Yeah," said Alph, shaking her head. "Both of their signals just… stopped. I don't know… even if something happened to them, the black boxes in their ESDs should have kept broadcasting on emergency frequencies. We just have to hope they—"
"OIIIII!" There came a cry from the storage facility's entrance that could only be from Marine, given its volume. "You guys better brace yourselves! Company's coming!"
"Damn," said Alph, "what now...?"
The four of them rushed to the massive arch where Erika Kurumi, Cure Marine, and Michiru Kaioh, Sailor Neptune, stood waiting. Neptune, as ever, was the picture of calm as she gazed into her mirror. She was a direct contrast to Marine, who looked as if she might explode if she stood still for more than a second or two. "There's Sunakiis on the way, Neptune picked them up in her mirror—"
"Sunakiis?" Twinkle blinked. "Those little sandbag things? That doesn't sound like much of a problem, we can take them."
"There's a lot of Sunakiis," said Marine, dancing from foot to foot like she was standing on a bed of hot coals.
"How many?" said Alph.
"Um." Marine went uncharacteristically quiet. "I'm not exactly sure, but I think… all of them…?"
Then they heard it: the sounds of hundreds if not thousands of feet marching in perfect lockstep, coming closer by the second. With each fall, hundreds if not thousands of high-pitched, oddly simian voices chanted as one: "Kii! Kii! Kii! Kii…!"
"Everyone, form up behind me," said Alph. "Mars, keep the little vermin close, and don't let her out of your sight."
All six of them drew together. The sound of the march grew louder, louder…
Iron Mouse kept her death grip on Mars's leg as she began a new mantra… but quietly, so that the bloodthirsty wolf-lady wouldn't hear. "We're all gonna die, we're all gonna die, we're all gonna die…"
Finally they came into sight... like a living tidal wave, well over five hundred Sunakiis advanced down the corridor, bag-heads raised and beady eyes narrowed. The first few rows raised their clublike fists…
To everyone's surprise, Alph burst into barking laughter. "Those are Sunakiis?! Damn, Marine, for a minute you had me worried!"
"B-but Alph-san, there's so many!"
"Just stay put," said Alph. An audacious grin lit her features as she flexed her neck and cracked her knuckles. "I'm gonna enjoy this. I've got a ton of steam to blow off, and there's nothing like a punching bag that punches back."
Only Neptune was composed enough to challenge this course of action; the rest were stunned into silence. "Alph-san," she said, hoping against hope, "surely you can't be considering—"
She was already gone, a vermillion cannonball charging to meet the Sunakii army head-on. Alph let out a joyful howl and plowed into the forward ranks, and the Sunakiis squealed piteously as they were scattered like ninepins. The corridor began to resemble an indoor beach as sand-filled bodies burst against the walls, the floor, the rafters and support beams above. Alph wasn't even using magic; her raw strength alone tore them to shreds.
"Holy crap," whispered Marine, unable to tear her eyes from the brutal spectacle. For once, she actually felt sorry for the Sunakiis.
"Now then," said Joker to the small shape huddled in the corner. "The Will was gracious enough to modify the temporo-spatial properties of this room. Ordinarily, I wouldn't have the time to attend to you properly… Preparing the artifact for the summoning is quite a grueling task, you see. But that's the beauty of this place: we can spend hours, days, weeks… maybe even years in here, and when we step out, only a few minutes will have passed. Isn't that marvelous?"
Wide, frightened eyes stared at the harlequin without comprehension.
"You should be grateful, cherie," said Joker. He leaned forward, and was pleased to see his prisoner shrink back, trying to melt into the seam where the walls met. "I'm committed to doing this right. No matter how long it takes, I want you to be absolutely perfect for the part."
"P-please…" The prisoner finally spoke, in a voice that trembled and shook like a newborn bird. "Please, let me go! I d-don't know wh-what's happening, I d-d-don't even know what I d-did…! Wh-whatever it was, I'm s-sorry! Please, l-let me go, I want to go home…!"
"Oh, you didn't do anything," said Joker, examining his claws. "That's sort of the point. You've done absolutely nothing, nothing at all. You and I have never met. In fact, you've never even heard of me or this war, n'est pas? Believe it or not, that's exactly why I need you.."
Nearly fetal with terror, the prisoner looked into the empty black eyes of Joker's mask and saw no pity there. No pity, no sympathy, no mercy…
"So," said Joker, drawing closer. "Let's begin, shall we? We have much rehearsing to do..."
Chibi-Usa Tsukino, Sailor Chibi-Moon, ran for her life.
Not something to be proud of, but when faced with an enormous horse from Hell and its rider, a red-robed, spear-wielding giant with a burning candle wick for a head… Despite its apparent lack of a mouth, that candle wick somehow let out a piercing metallic shriek the moment it saw her, and it held the sound long past the point where anything with lungs should have stopped for breath. Chibi-Moon ran, and the nightmare creature gave chase, its steed's iron hooves kicking up a constant rain of sparks from the faux-asphalt.
The city and its endless streets of impossible five-sided buildings passed by Chibi-Moon in a grey, featureless blur. She saw none of it; the only way she could keep to a straight line and stay ahead of the rider and steed was by keeping her eyes locked on the meter or so of the road she could see rushing by directly underneath her. She prayed to whoever might listen for the road to stay solid… if it became a bog again, she would be trampled under the horse's gigantic hooves before she could free herself. Squashed like a bug, most likely. That was if she didn't run headlong into a tree or the side of a building while she was so focused on looking at her feet…
Sure enough, a low-hanging smoke-and-glass branch struck her in the face. Its leaves were… wrong. Leathery, like bat wings, their edges sharp as razors. Shrieking, Chibi-Moon swatted the branch away, it snapped off the trunk and came away at her touch—
And that distraction was enough. Her boot touched down an inch or two behind where it should have, and her toes slammed into a curb when she raised it again. The shock and pain rocketed up her leg all the way to the base of her skull, and Chibi-Moon tripped and fell, hard. The curb was just as hard and unyielding as cement should be, her aching toes would attest to that. When she fell upon it with her full weight, though, the curb and part of the sidewalk blew apart into countless tiny grains, as if both were made of sand. Mentally cursing the city, its refusal to make sense, and all those involved in making it this way, Chibi-Moon braced herself for the crushing hooves, or for the killing blow of the rider's spear blade…
It never came. When she cracked open an eye, the rider and its steed were a hundred meters behind her, the former withdrawing its spear from a new fissure in the faux-asphalt, where Chibi-Moon's neck had been mere seconds before. Even it seemed baffled by how this could have happened; the ongoing scream from its match flame took on a wavering, confused pitch.
For whatever reason, or perhaps no reason at all, the city's nonsensical nature had saved her. Chibi-Moon knew better than to question it; she picked herself up and fled, stealing fleeting glances back the horse and rider to be sure she was traveling away from it. Her poor foot throbbed red hot with every step, but she wasn't dead. Yet, at least.
As it was, she was almost on top of the second monster before she noticed it. Only its looming shadow gave it away, a huge dark oval head on a too-thin body, standing out from the featureless glass-and-smoke faux-asphalt. Chibi-Moon let out a groan of mixed terror and frustration, skidded to a near-stop, and turned herself in a direction she hoped was away from this new creature.
"Hhhhk—" Something seized her by the throat, constricted, and yanked her back. Both of her feet slipped out from underneath her, and there was a heart-stopping second of freefall before she slammed into the street. Chibi-Moon's consciousness slid away for a few moments in a haze of exploding stars. She was dimly aware of being dragged backwards, of bands around her neck that were soft and paper-thin but ungodly strong. Her hands waved drunkenly, numb fingers trying to grasp whatever was strangling her. Then weightlessness, her feet left the ground…
When her vision cleared, she found herself staring at… at something that she could only describe as a deranged interpretation of an old-fashioned child's doll, blown up to gigantic size. What she had taken for a skull at first glance was in fact an immense yellow bonnet. Too yellow, its color was so bright that it stung her eyes. The bonnet's size made the creature's actual head, a golden-haired human head, seem grotesquely shrunken; it lolled on its shoulders at a sickening angle, its face pallid, its amber eyes milky and staring at nothing. Its rail-like body was dressed in more eye-searing colors, it swelled wide at the hips before tapering again from its shins downward. Its arms were like twigs, wrapped in colorful ribbons that moved on their own, reminding Chibi-Moon of snakes. The doll drew her close with its arm-ribbons and made a horrid moaning sound that fell off into a bony rattle…
"N-no… let go…" Chibi-Moon clawed at her neck. The ribbons, it was strangling her with its ribbons. Her fingertips scraped her skin, but she couldn't find any seams, they were too thin, wrapped too tight… and growing tighter, tighter. Her lungs ached with a sudden, desperate need for air. "Let… go…!" Soft fabric slithered against her skin as the ribbons moved, crisscrossing up her cheeks, over her lips, covering her nose, then her eyes, all the while constricting… Now blinded, she flailed for purchase, for any grip at all. It didn't mean to strangle her. It was going to smother her.
Darkness. Hot, stuffy, squeezing darkness, pressing the life from her body. Chibi-Moon screamed with all the breath she had left… She wasn't even sure if she could perform this attack, it was one of Usagi's, but it was the only thing left to try. The words of her invocation came out muffled, but clear enough: "Moon Twilight Flash!"
A burst of intense moonlight leaked through the seams in the ribbons and shone straight into the monster's eyes. Nearly dead they were, but not entirely blind… the light sent a javelin of agony through its brain.
Chibi-Moon felt its grip slacken. She tore the loosened ribbons from her face and neck, and once more plummeted to the street. More pain, but she pushed that pain back with the force of her desperation. Away, she had to get away. She broke into a hobbling run… there was an alleyway, a gap between two buildings to her right. She half-lurched, half-dove for its shelter… It was dark and cool, and blessedly free of monsters. Suppressing a sob, she limped further into its depths… and stumbled over something soft at her feet. Chibi-Moon tripped for the second time in as many minutes. Her hands flew out to break her fall... Squish. Whatever it was she landed on cushioned the blow. It was soft, and faintly warm. An animal?
"S-sorry, I'm s-sorry…" she stammered. "Are you oka—"
Every muscle in her body tensed at once. She recoiled in mindless horror, eyes wild, throat too tight to make a sound.
Chibi-Moon had just fallen over her own corpse.
She… no, the other Chibi-Moon... the body... it... lay on its back, blank scarlet eyes staring unblinkingly up at the cavern ceiling. Its mouth hung slightly ajar, its limbs were splayed at unnatural angles, its twintails formed a lifeless pink pool that cradled its head. And it was still warm, still wearing the very fuku she had on, even bearing the same scuffs and scratches in the same places. It was fresh, no more than a few minutes removed from herself at the most. There was no blood, no obvious signs of injury, but its presence, the way that it seemed to suck all the life and warmth and feeling from the air around it, was unmistakable. Not an illusion or a fake, not another Chibi-Moon from another world or another timeline, but herself, as she was right now… dead.
Retching, Chibi-Moon recoiled and scrambled backward, pressing herself to the alley's opposite wall. Her corpse just lay there, small and sad and broken.
Something welled up within her, an energy she had not felt in a long time. It tore itself out of Chibi-Moon as she screamed… and from beneath the jeweled tiara on her forehead, a tower of multicolored light erupted, stretching higher and higher, a mighty pillar of moonbeam energy that shone to the peak of the cavern ceiling…
As the two dueled and the orchestra played on, Jamais Ville spun through setting after setting of Tomoeda: the elementary school, the park with its giant King Penguin slide, where Joker had first appeared, the market street, the Daidouji mansion. Every time their blades clashed, their surroundings changed, but they were always the same lifeless smoke-and-glass material. Neither of the combatants paid their surroundings any mind; their focus was solely on each other.
"How?!" snarled Sayaka Miki as she and Oktavia voided and fell back once again. "How… are you… this strong…?"
Sakura Kinomoto held her rapier level, point toward her opponent, awaiting the next move. She said nothing in reply, but her eyes spoke volumes. It was plain on her face: the sorrow, the pity she felt for Sayaka. The regret of being forced to fight someone she would have considered a friend under other, better circumstances. Along with that regret, though, was will… a drive to do what she must, a determination equal or greater than Sayaka's own. If that meant fighting and defeating Sayaka, she would do it. There was no more doubt. All those feelings were conveyed in Sakura's sad, beautiful green eyes…
"Dammit," said Sayaka, retaking her stance, "they told me you couldn't fight! They told me—"
Finally, Sakura spoke, her voice soft and low. "I don't want to fight. I have to."
Sayaka roared in frustration and came at her with another barrage of overhead blows. Oktavia lagged behind, awaiting her master's orders. "You don't… understand… anything!" Each strike of her cutlass clanged off the flat of Sakura's rapier, a sword far too light and thin to withstand such an assault. "I've got… to do this… for Madoka!" Every chop was parried, every slice sidestepped and answered with a riposte. The Cardcaptor moved like a champion fencer, it didn't make sense… "You're not even fighting!" she spat as they locked blades. "Coward...! If it's that important to you, fight back!"
"No," said Sakura. Again, the regret, the pity in those eyes... "I don't want to hurt you. You're a good person, Miki-san, I can tell. You've made bad choices and you've lost your way, but you're a good person."
"Shut UP!" Sayaka gritted her teeth and twisted, a move that should have torn the rapier from her opponent's hands…
Incredibly, Sakura moved with the attempted disarm, countered it, and turned it back on her. "Come back with us," she said. Not a demand, but a plea. "Whatever happened with you and Akemi-san, we'll work it out. I can help… everything will be all right, somehow."
"You…" Sputtering, Sayaka broke the stalemate and leaped back, keeping the flat of her cutlass toward Sakura as if expecting a sneak attack. "You stupid, naive… idiot…! How can you be so trusting?! Don't you see, she's my enemy! I'm your enemy! We're at war!"
"We don't have to be." Such a simple statement, and said with such conviction.
For a moment, it almost seemed Sayaka would listen.
Then a cerulean spell circle marked with the notes of a musical score shone under her feet, she pointed… and the gargantuan armored Witch sprung back into the fore, bringing its saber down in a ferocious blow to split Sakura in two.
Sakura's mind raced. Less than a second to react. Even SWORD couldn't fend off a blade that size. If she deactivated it, she would be helpless until it regained its strength. Perhaps DASH or JUMP would get her out of the way of the saber's fall, but it wouldn't stop Miki. The saber's massive, curved edge descended millimeter by millimeter, as if in slow motion. Sakura sped through every Card she had left, their strengths, their weaknesses, their funny little quirks, looking for something that would force Miki to stop… Finally, she drew her Card and called out name, pouring her trust into it: "SWEET!"
A tiny fairy with a puffy round dress and hair like dandelions rose from the card. One-tenth Oktavia's size, it seemed she was doomed to be bisected along with the Cardcaptor. But when the saber came down, she raised a small wand and tapped its edge…
Oktavia stopped dead in mid-swing.
"Wh—" Sayaka couldn't believe her eyes. "What did you just—" She felt for Oktavia's presence, for her power, and came up with nothing. And now the Witch's colors seemed to bleach from her in a wave as her mass disappeared… She was no longer a solid being, but a shell of herself, made from countless interconnected strands, all whisper-thin. At its size, the shell of Oktavia couldn't sustain its own weight. It buckled, it crumbled into pieces. Shredded strands drifted down like snowflakes… With no Witch to stem from, the orchestra of Familiars melted into shadows, plunging the battleground into sudden silence. As if in a dream, Sayaka caught one of the drifting strands and examined it, rubbing it between her fingers. A sticky, grainy texture, with a familiar scent...
Spun sugar. Sakura's Card had turned her Witch's entire body into spun sugar with just a single touch.
Cold dread churned in Sayaka's belly. Stunned, she lifted her gaze to meet Sakura's. "No wonder Joker wants you so badly."
Before Sakura could reply, the city blew apart around them.
"Through suffering upon suffering," said Joker to the prisoner, "You come to the conclusion that life is a war, and in that war, you are the vanquished… You have no weapon but your hatred." He smiled. "Sharpen it and take it with you when you leave."
From the prisoner, there was no answer save for shallow, labored breathing.
They were there, just outside the alley's entrance. Drawn by her moonbeam, of course. Both of them jostling for position, trying to be the first to reach in and finish her off. For now, the two buildings were solid enough and the gap between them narrow enough to keep the monsters at bay, but Chibi-Moon knew better than to trust them to stay that way.
She huddled against the wall, shivering, hating the sight of the body across from her but unable to tear her eyes away. Perhaps it was a prophecy, showing her what would happen should she try to fight. A warning, from… minutes? Hours? … in her future.
Both monsters snarled and took swipes at each other. The horse's enormous hooves rang as it cantered in place, restless.
If she stayed here in her little ball, she might be safe for a little while longer, Chibi-Moon thought, but there was no telling how long. For all she knew, the buildings would come tumbling down around her ears, or the ground would open and swallow her whole. Nothing made sense in this awful place. So the choice was to either die at the monsters' hands, or die when the city next shifted.
I can't take this anymore…
Across from her, the corpse stared heavenward.
If she did nothing, it would be her lying there like that. Dead and alone in this horrible mockery of a city…
Chibi-Moon swallowed. Bracing herself against the wall, she attempted to climb to her feet. Her legs felt like jelly, but by holding onto the wall she could do it. Now it was just a matter of inching forward…
The monsters broke off their attacks on each other, sensing movement.
Chibi-Moon put out a hand. She had no idea what to do; her Pink Sugar Heart Attack was surely too feeble to damage either of them. But she was Sailor Chibi-Moon, damn it. She was Princess Usagi Small Lady Serenity, future Queen of Crystal Tokyo, and if she didn't do something…
Well, she thought. I've been dead before. Or near enough.
Ribbons flooded the alley, slithering along the ground and walls, a hundred silky vectors making beelines for her.
Chibi-Moon never knew why she did it. She wasn't even in the right form for it. Perhaps some part of her figured that in a city where nothing made sense, the usual rules didn't apply. Pouring power into her outstretched hand, she called for the one person other than the absent Usagi, Mamoru, and Hotaru who never failed to give her courage, who made her feel worthy of her birthright, of being the Queen she would become. "Please, Helios!"
It made no sense. She wasn't even in the right form for it, and Helios was in another universe, protecting Elysion on her Earth, countless miles away. And yet, somehow, it worked... the Crystal Carillion, a golden bell with a pink, heart-shaped handle, materialized at her fingertips. She nearly wept with gratitude at the sight of it. Chibi-Moon raised it high, shook it, and called out: "Twinkle Yell!"
The bell rang out a single clear chime. To the shock of both Chibi-Moon and the monsters, the soundwaves of its toll rippled outward in an expanding sphere of power, far more powerful than the Twinkle Yell had ever been before. That sphere crashed into the buildings to either side, and into the buildings next to them, expanding throughout the block, the neighborhood, the entire bizarre city… and where it passed, the entirety of Jamais Ville, buildings, trees, cars, streets, and all, pulled backwards and away from it like a receding tide. Solid objects moved like water, as if the Carillion's sound were repelling them with magnetic force…
In the suddenly blank spot where Chibi-Moon stood baffled, a shadow appeared… a great, majestic pegasus with a golden horn and white feathered wings. It was faint and insubstantial, little more than an echo, but before it faded entirely, the pegasus bowed its head before her, as if to say, My Lady.
"Th-thank you, Helios." Chibi-Moon sniffed and wiped away a tear. "Thank you."
It was more than just the monsters that were baffled. Sakura Kinomoto now stood on an empty, impossibly smooth patch of rock where the false Tomoeda had been only seconds before. The smoke-and-glass city and everything in it was swept away by that strange sound, and only she and Sayaka were left. "Wh-what just—"
She stopped when she saw the look on Sayaka Miki's face. Ashen with shock, hurt, and betrayal, Sayaka gaped at the two bizarre monsters trying to regain their bearings enough to attack the pink Senshi who rushed up to Sakura's side.
"Sakura, come on!" said Chibi-Moon, grabbing her teammate's wrist. "I don't know exactly what I did, but we should hurry up and beat those things before they—"
"DON'T!" The cry came from Sayaka, a sound of mortal anguish. "Don't kill them, please! They're people, they're both my friends!" She shot both of them a look, desperate and pleading… but a look that said that she knew better than to expect mercy from her enemies. Her expression tore at Sakura's heart.
Chibi-Moon paled. If she had destroyed them with her Heart Attack… No, that was too horrible to think about.
"Chibi-Moon," said Sakura. "What we were talking about back on the shuttle—"
"I-I told you before, I've never tried to use my Silver Crystal that way! If I mess it up…"
"You can do it." Sakura took Chibi-Moon's hands in hers. "I believe in you. Please, try."
Chibi-Moon turned to the monsters, now making threatening motions toward them. Swallowing heavily, she lifted the lid of her compact, summoned all her strength, and shouted: "M-Moon Healing Escalation…!"
A corona of pink light enveloped the Hybrid-Witches. Both screamed, their monstrous bodies melting away like morning dew, uncovering real bodies, human bodies, trapped underneath… As they writhed in the Silver Crystal's radiance, small black metal orbs, each the size of ball bearings, ejected themselves from both their torsos. The orbs sparked and cracked open with the force of the Crystal's energy, and dissolved into dust. The pink light scaled upward to searing white, both Chibi-Moon and Sakura shielded their eyes…
Sayaka, however, stood watching it all. Her shock had passed; now her expression was stern and unreadable.
"Guh…" Kyoko Sakura fell to her hands and knees in the fading light, fighting the urge to be sick. Not from anything physical; in fact, her body felt oddly better than it had in quite some time… it was the memories that turned her stomach. Being turned into something worse than a Wraith, worse than even a normal Witch… at least Witches weren't sane enough to be aware of their own actions.
"A-are you okay?" said somebody above her. An unfamiliar voice. Soft and gentle.
"Careful, Sakura," said another voice, also unfamiliar.
Kyoko blinked. "H-how the h-hell did you know my name?"
"Hoe~?" said the first voice. Kyoko surmised that it was a sound of confusion. "Y-you're Sakura too?!"
"Kyoko Sakura," she said, batting aside the hand that the owner of the first voice offered her. "Don't. I-I'll be fine, soon as I find that clown and kill him…"
The second girl, who currently appeared to Kyoko as a blur in various shades of pink, turned what Kyoko assumed must be her head. "Th-there. They're both healed, they're back to normal. N-no more reason to attack us, right?"
Kyoko peered at the pink one as she righted herself. A pang went off in her heart; her resemblance to Madoka was considerable from what she could see. Far worse was the wave of nausea when she made out who the pink one was talking to, the girl in whites and blues with a long satin cape… "S-Sayaka."
Sayaka said nothing.
Kyoko's legs wobbled as she righted herself. "Sayaka… wh-what the hell…"
Sayaka said nothing.
And Kyoko laughed. Shakily, but she laughed. "Th-these guys said you attacked them. Th-that can't be right, right? Little Miss Ally-of-Justice Sayaka-chan?"
Still Sayaka was silent.
"S-say something, dammit!" Her cheeks flushed as Kyoko took a few steps forward. "C'mon, bonehead, you're really gonna make me—"
Click. The unmistakable sound of a single-shot musket's trigger being cocked interrupted her. "Sakura-san," said Mami Tomoe, transformed and in her full glory, aiming a rifle at Sayaka... "Please, stay back."
"M… Mami…?" Kyoko's mouth didn't want to work right. "Wh-what the hell are you doing? That's Sayaka over there. Sayaka, say something!"
Sayaka only stared.
"W-we need to leave," said the other Sakura, wringing her hands together. "Before the city comes back, or does something worse. We have to meet up with the others and get out of here…"
Storming forward before anyone could stop her, Kyoko made a grab for Sayaka's wrist. "That means you, bonehead! You can explain yourself once we're—" Kyoko looked down. It took a moment to comprehend what she was seeing: the blade of an antique-style cutlass, rammed into her belly. A line of cold steel skewered her, plunging through her soft tissues and out of her back.
Sayaka's eyes were cold and emotionless as she withdrew her sword. A gout of red stained the pure white fabric of her cape as Kyoko collapsed, still staring in disbelief at her best friend, who had just run her through.
END OF CHAPTER 32
[Author's Note: Sorry for the long delay between chapters. I spent most of the last month frantically trying to boost my YouTube channel to hit the monetization deadline... Thankfully, that's all taken care of now, and I should be back on a semi-regular schedule. - BHS]