Chapter 33: Treasonable Conduct

La Fin de Toute

(formerly Galactica Palace)

38th Floor, Approaching Sector Mu

Alph's trail wasn't difficult to follow. It was if a tornado had ripped through the Sunakiis; piles of sand were everywhere, dotted with intermittent scraps of the little monsters' canvas-like skin… very small scraps.

Four Operation Batman comrades and one pint-sized asylum-seeker gingerly made their way through the carnage, the majority of them making an effort to step over as many piles as they could. Erika Kurumi, Cure Marine, had reassured them repeatedly that the Sunakiis really were no more than animated sandbags, and that the sand inside their bodies—formerly inside their bodies—was exactly what it appeared to be. "It's plain, ordinary sand," she said from her position ahead of the others. "There's no need to be all twitchy about it. I dunno how exactly the Desert Apostles brought them to life, but we found out for ourselves when we raided their base to rescue Tsubomi's grandma. There's nothing else inside those bags, just sand."

"I still don't want to touch it. It was walking around a few minutes ago," said Kirara Amanogawa, Cure Twinkle, with a grimace of distaste. "You can if you want to, Marine."

"Um," said Sailor Iron Mouse, bringing up the rear of the group. It was the farthest position from Alph, so she intended to stay there unless someone objected. "H-how exactly did you find out wh-what was inside them…?" The way she shook indicated that she dreaded the answer.

Unable to resist the opportunity, Marine flashed the false Senshi the widest, evilest smile she could. "Oh, me and Sunshine split a couple of them open, emptied them out, and wore their skins to disguise ourselves while we snuck around," she said, all casual. After a burst of inspiration, she rolled back her eyes, wriggled her fingers for emphasis, and took on a low-pitched approximation of a horror movie voice for the clincher. "They neeeever noticed a thiiiiing..."

Iron Mouse squealed and seized hold of her tail for comfort. "Y-y-y-you people are barbarians!"

"Marine," said Rei Hino, Sailor Mars, second from the back. "Don't taunt the prisoner."

"What, do you really think she'll attack us? She's way outnumbered."

"No," said Mars. Her brow furrowed. "It's just… tacky."

"Aww."

"Y-you're all so mean!" Iron Mouse sniffled in abject misery and ran her tail through her fingers. "I'm h-helping you, r-risking my neck… I even t-told you about the M-Merry-Go-Round and where to f-find it! Wh-what did I ever do to anybody to deserve this?!"

Ahead of her, Mars thought she saw the ghost of a laugh flit across Neptune's face, but it might have been a trick of the light.

"Oh, hey, there she is! Alph-san!" Marine went running ahead, waving so fast that her arm resembled a metronome turned on much too high. "Alph-san!"

The wolf familiar stood covered head to tail in a fine dusting of sand among the pathetic remains of the last platoon of Sunakiis as she checked a holo-readout. "Glad you all made it," she said, not looking up. "I actually have good news: I've picked up Chibi-Moon and Sakura's locator signals again. They're only a few floors above where Black and Fortune are, we can pick them up on our way." After a pause, she shifted to wolf form and shook herself vigorously, sending a cloud of tiny grains flying from her coat. "Ah, that's better," she said, switching to telepathic speech.

"You really went to town on them," said Marine, a little awed and a little scared. "You're not hurt, are you?"

"Are you kidding?" Alph flashed a fanged grin… an action which was far more intimidating in this form. "I feel great. We oughta see about importing some of those things for the TSAB training facilities back on Mid-Childa when this is all over. Come on," she said, beckoning the others with a flick of her tail as they drew near. "Let's hurry, before we lose their signal again." Without waiting for a response, she bounded down the corridor…

Jamais Ville

It was difficult to tell who started screaming first. Both of the unfamiliar girls, the one all in shades of pink who vaguely resembled Madoka and the other, the green-eyed brunette carrying the bird-like wand, cried out in near-simultaneous horror as Kyoko Sakura crumpled…

Mami Tomoe did not scream. Though much of her memory of the time spent as a Hybrid-Witch she could suppress by sheer force of will, she would not and could not suppress the memories of seeing Sayaka Miki through the enchanted bars of the cage Dead End kept her in. Sayaka, walking around freely, obediently responding to orders from Dead End superiors and from even Joker, the monster himself. Perhaps Kyoko never saw her, or didn't want to believe that Sayaka could ever betray them… whatever the reason, now she had paid the price for it.

Two rifles roared in sequence, and bullets struck the impossibly smooth stone floor to either side of Sayaka. Bright golden ribbons sprung from their points of impact, pinned her arms to her sides, and constricted tight. With the opponent mobilized for the moment, Mami dropped the spent weapons and leaped to Kyoko's side, already preparing a healing spell… but keeping a third rifle trained on Sayaka's forehead. "Miki-san," she said, cool and dangerous.

Sayaka only growled and thrashed with her restraints.

Kyoko's breathing was ragged with shock. "Sh-shit…" she gasped, pressing her bloodstained hands over the wound in a feeble attempt to staunch the flow of blood. "Shit… shit… shit…"

"Lie still," said Mami. Her free hand hovered over Kyoko's belly and began to glow. "And please don't talk. Everything will be all right."

"You're an idiot if you think that's really true," Sayaka snapped, pulling harder. "Dead End won't stop until—"

"I suggest you stop talking as well," said Mami. Her finger tightened on the rifle's trigger. "As things are right now, very little of what you have to say interests me, Miki-san."

Slowly, the hole through Kyoko's belly began to close and shrink. She would still need proper medical attention, Mami thought, but she would live…

The unbearable hurt of betrayal in Kyoko's eyes, however, suggested that living was the last thing she wanted to do right now. While Mami's spell did its work, she kept her eyes locked on Sayaka's, trying to see past the rage and hatred to find the Sayaka that she knew, trying to comprehend why

"Um," said someone behind Mami, the girl with the wand. "Onee-san…"

"Tomoe," said Mami. "Mami Tomoe."

"Tomoe?!" Chibi-Usa Tsukino, Sailor Chibi-Moon, goggled in disbelief. "Seriously?! Another one?"

"Tomoe-san." Sakura Kinomoto fidgeted back and forth, passing her wand from hand to hand without conscious awareness of doing so. "Ch-Chibi-Moon was able to heal you and Sakura-san… the other Sakura-san… and turn you back to normal. If… if she can do the same to your friend…"

"You have healing magic?" Mami's amber eyes moved to the other girl.

"A-apparently I do," said Chibi-Moon. "I don't know how many more times I can manage it, but—"

"Then, if you please," said Mami. It was polite and soft-spoken, but not a request. "Miki-san is obviously not herself."

"Dammit, don't any of you get it?!" The ribbons creaked as Sayaka fought like a maddened bull; more sprung up and coiled around her ankles to root her to the spot. "Nothing you're doing matters! If you stay on her side—"

"D-don't worry, Miki-san." Sakura held up a hand in what she hoped was a reassuring manner. "We'll have you back to normal soon."

Once more, Chibi-Moon opened her compact and gathered her power. Please, Silver Crystal, she thought to it. I don't know what's going on, but please, help me fix this! The Crystal shone from within, casting brilliant pink light over the three strangers. "Moon Healing Escalation!" A cascade of power swept over them…

Kyoko drew in a long, rattling gasp. Mami's healing magic always worked slow. This, though… the hole left by Sayaka's cutlass vanished in the space of seconds. The sensation of torn flesh regrowing at impossible speed was weird, perhaps the weirdest thing she had ever felt, but… but the light was pure in ways she didn't have words for. A little frightening in its intensity, but also oddly calm and soothing, like she was floating...

Mami felt it too, a sensation of weight she didn't even know she was carrying being lifted. The magic she used to heal Kyoko and summon her ribbons and rifles was refreshed in a near-instant. That simply wasn't possible without Grief Seeds, or the Despair Cubes dropped by Wraiths. Who were these girls?

"Ah—!" And Sayaka was buffeted by that light, taking the fullest brunt of its force. Unstoppable, unthinkable light, holy light, both terribly alien and somewhat familiar to her…

Chibi-Moon staggered and collapsed to her knees as her compact clicked shut. Two Healing Escalations within minutes of each other was her limit, she thought. Poor Sakura rushed to her side, pleading with her to be all right and trying to help her up, but for the moment she was incapable of answering.

Kyoko rose to her feet, shocked at how easy it was to do so. Her injury was not just healed, but erased. If it weren't for what just happened, she thought she would feel almost… giddy. "Holy crap," she said, a smile spreading across her face despite herself. "What was that?"

Mami didn't answer. She held Sayaka, keeping her from falling as her ribbons dissolved. "Miki-san," she said, gentle and comforting. "Are you all right now?"

The cutlass that Sayaka summoned and aimed at her throat was a sufficient answer. She hauled herself free of Mami's grip, keeping the point trained on her neck. "I… told you…" she panted. "Nothing you do… is going to help..."

Sakura's hands flew to her mouth. "Tomoe-san! Miki-san, no…!"

"It—" Chibi-Moon stared, stupefied. "It… it didn't work…?"

"Of course it didn't work, I'm not brainwashed!" said Sayaka, circling around to Mami's back, not taking her eyes off her adversaries. "I'm not being mind-controlled, I'm not a monster, and they're not forcing me to work for them! It was my choice to join Joker, because Homura Akemi has to pay. This is me."

An angry scarlet flash lit the cavern as Kyoko transformed. Her spear materialized in her hands. "Bullshit, Sayaka!" she said, hefting the weapon like a javelin. "I don't even care that you stabbed me, hell, you can hurt me all you want... but threatening Mami is crossing the fucking line!" She blinked rapidly as she shouted, as if there were something stuck in her eyes. "We all know you're pissed off, and that Homura's done bad stuff, and you've got a right to feel that way! But even you should be able see that that Joker asshole is pure evil! Whatever the hell your problem is, just give it up already and let us help you, idiot!"

"I'm not too fond of Akemi-san at the moment either," said Mami, drawing another rifle. This time, she aimed it directly at the Soul Gem on Sayaka's belly… which, she noted, was clear and sparkling blue, completely refreshed. "However, I must agree with Sakura-san. Between Akemi-san and Joker, the worse of the two is quite obvious to everyone… everyone except you, apparently, Miki-san. Despite your despicable attack on Sakura-san, I still believe your wisest choice would be to come with us… so that none of us have to do something we'll later regret."

Outnumbered four to one, Sayaka took a few steps back, sword at bay, eyes blazing. "You don't get it," she said. "It was better before she brought us back."

Beneath them, the smooth stone floor trembled. At the edges of the rocky platform that the impossible city once stood on, walls of new structures began to grow, made of something like smoke trapped in glass…

"We need to get out of here," said Chibi-Moon. "The city is reforming, and our friends need us!"

A swirling cobalt aura enveloped Sayaka's body, her spell circle inscribing itself at her feet. "You think I'll just let you all go? You think it's going to be that easy?!" The timber of her voice took on faint echoes of her Witch's orchestra. "Kyoko, Mami-san, you know me, you know how my magic works… and the pink girl over there just filled me back up, same as you two! The only way you get out of here is through me... and I don't go down easily!"

Mami and Kyoko exchanged worried looks. They knew.

It was Sakura who broke the cold, deadly silence that followed. She stepped forward, a Card between her fingers and deep sorrow in her eyes. "I'm sorry, Miki-san. I still believe in you, but… but we have to go. ILLUSION."

Before Sayaka's astonished eyes, Mami, Kyoko, Sakura, and Chibi-Moon all vanished. In their place was an eye-crossing pattern of swirling geometric light. "Wh—" Her face twisted, for that light somehow shrank and shaped itself into the face she so hated, her mortal enemy. "You…"

Sneering at her, brushing back her long black hair, Homura Akemi stood in front of her, haughty and superior as ever, flaunting the black, jeweled earring containing Madoka's stolen power. "You really are pathetic, Miki," she said, mocking laughter bubbling on her lips. "Thinking this little temper tantrum will change anything. Don't you see what you're doing? Can you even grasp the irony…? To think that the self-proclaimed 'Ally of Justice' would turn out to be just like me..."

"SHUT UP!" Sayaka howled and brought her cutlass screaming down on her tormentor. "Shut up, shut up! I'm not like you! I'm nothing like you, you traitor! You bitch…!"

"She—" Chibi-Moon watched, stunned, as Sayaka Miki screamed bloody murder and slashed her sword through nothing but air. "What did you do to her?"

Sakura shuddered. "ILLUSION is making her see what she's afraid of, I think. It works differently for everyone. I didn't want to do it, but I didn't have a choice..."

"Looks to me like you saved our hides, kid. Thanks." Kyoko came up and clapped her on the shoulder. The dark, bitter expression she wore struck Sakura with an almost physical pain. "Hope it keeps her busy for a while. A long while."

"Come on," said Mami. The anguish in Kyoko's heart was written all over her face, but now was not the time to address it. "We should escape while we still can. You two, Chibi-Moon-san and—"

"Sakura. Sakura Kinomoto."

"—and Kinomoto-san, please lead the way."

They took off at a run, with Chibi-Moon already on her ESD attempting to contact the others. Behind them, oblivious to their flight, Sayaka raged at her phantom. Her furious, futile cries echoed in the wide, empty stone cavern...

Sealed Chamber

The prisoner stood, a prisoner no longer.

"Magnifique," Joker whispered. This was a crowning achievement, even for one as brilliant as himself. He hoped that wherever Pierrot was, he was watching, watching and writhing in jealous agony. To the prisoner, he said, "Ready?"

There was a warm, bubbly giggle in response.

La Fin de Toute

(formerly Galactica Palace)

38th Floor, Sector Mu

As they passed yet another of the seemingly endless hatch doors set into metallic bulkheads, Sailor Mars skidded to a stop. Though her ESP had been little but a useless, constant drone since they set foot inside the palace, a spike of feeling broke the monotony and tingled in the back of her skull… it was something familiar. "Wait!"
Sailor Iron Mouse slammed face-first into her legs from behind, nearly bowling her over. "Owwwch…"

Four meters ahead, Neptune raised an eyebrow. "Is something wrong?"

Mars took a few steps back and stared at the hatch, willing it to give up its secrets. "There's something behind this door. Something I've felt before. Mouse, what's in here?"

"You think I know?!" Iron Mouse whined, rubbing her sore nose. "They didn't even tell me which one my room was when I got here! I had to figure it out for myself, and it took weeks! Do you even know what it's like to walk in on a Daimon when they're—"

"Shut up," said Mars. "If there's something here that's strong enough to trigger my powers through all this interference…"

Marine leaned around the corner of the next bulkhead, having noticed that the others were no longer following. "What's up, Mars? Is your Spidey-Sense tingling?"

"Please don't call it that. Let's just take a look. If it's important technology or magic, it could be worth it to destroy it now, right?"

Alph padded to the door, sniffed it, and stood up, resuming her humanoid form. "You're the psychic. How do we get in?"

"I think Chuu-chan's already on it," said Twinkle. She tilted a thumb downward at an angle.

"Oh, don't mind me," said Iron Mouse. She had to stand on her tiptoes to reach the hatch's access panel, and she looked none too pleased about it. Small, deft fingers flew over the controls. "I'm just here being helpful to you and getting no gratitude for it. As usual. Here, I'll even keep it open for you. You're welcome."

The hatch doors rumbled open with much creaking and groaning of metal. Beyond them lay a wide-open hangar, much like a smaller version of the storage area a few floors up. What were clearly some sort of guidance markings were inscribed in glowing runes on the floor… but there were no bay doors, no exit of any kind. Against either side wall were bizarre constructs formed from glittering, deep violet crystals and charcoal grey metal, all sharp angles, pointed ends, and cannon barrels. Each was as big as a bull elephant and apparently inactive.

Twinkle sucked in a breath. "Are… are those tanks…?"

"Not sure," said Alph as she took readings. "They're magitech, definitely the science bitch's work. It seems like they could be piloted, but I can't see how."

Mars's attention was not on the tanks, or whatever they were. On the otherwise blank steel wall where hangar doors should have been, each of the four corners was marked by a spire of jet-black crystal half a meter tall, all four arranged at diagonal angles so that their peaks pointed to the wall's center. Her fiery pupils shrank to pinpricks. "No," she whispered. "That can't be. We destroyed it all…"

"Mars?" said Neptune, coming to her side. "What is it?"

"Malefic Black Crystal," said Mars. "It's from Nemesis, the planet of the Black Moon Clan…"

"It seems that more of what has troubled us in the past has been brought back." Neptune folded her arms. "More than we anticipated, in any event. The question is, how—"

A terrified squeal from the other side of the entrance hatch interrupted her. It was followed by demented laughter…

"Everyone, on your guard!" Alph took position at the front, erecting protective barriers. Sunakiis were one thing, but in this enclosed space, they would be at a serious disadvantage against capable opponents…

"Look what I found, you guys!" said the girl with dark magenta pigtails who stood at the hatch. Her form was sheathed in a black, form-fitting bodysuit accented with pink skirts and columns of pink diamonds up and down her sides. She beamed as she hauled a flailing Iron Mouse through the hatch, delighted by the false Senshi's terror. "There's a cute little mousie scurrying around where she shouldn't be, and I caught it! Master Joker will be so ultra happy~!"

The color began to drain from Twinkle's face.

"No," whispered Marine. "Oh no."

"Hmph," said a taller, more athletic girl with a haughty sniff. Her black suit was patterned with emerald green. "Don't be too proud of yourself, Happy. It's such a weak creature... I don't know why our Master kept it around for so long."

Yet another, this one cold, calm, and dressed in blue, regarded Iron Mouse with frigid distaste. "And such an ugly vermin too, March. Surely Master Joker will not mind if we dispose of it for him."

And the last, in orange, filled her hands with roaring purple flames and licked her lips. She twitched as if restraining herself from leaping in and tearing everyone she saw apart was taking a herculean effort."Let's roast it. Can we roast it, Beauty? I'll bet mice are pretty tasty when they're cooked…"

"No!" Iron Mouse wailed, attempting to shrink into a ball. "No, no, no, no, no, not you…! Let me go, please, let me go! Don't hurt me!"

"Marine?" Out of the corner of her eye, Alph saw her comrade's stricken expression. "What is it? Who are they?"

Biting back tears, Marine answered, husky and sickened. "They… they're Yayoi's teammates. The Smile Cures, Joker's worst enemies. He…"

Mars, Neptune, and Alph all felt the same chill pass through them, like someone walking on their graves. Not monsters, not grunts like the Sunakiis, not unfeeling psychopaths like Viluy, but four of their own, four innocent victims corrupted by Joker's sadism.

Bad End Happy tossed Iron Mouse into the hangar at their feet in a shivering heap and clapped her hands together. "And we've got something special for all of you!" she said, her eyes shining. "You're all gonna be the first to see Master Joker's special surprise…"

And he was there, walking out of a streak of darkness, grinning from ear to pointed ear: Joker himself. "Oui, my dear," said Joker, giving Happy a fond pat on the head. She cooed in pleasure. "Bonsoir, mademoiselles! Marine, Twinkle, I don't believe we've had the pleasure. Mars and Neptune, lovely to see you both again, is that a new hairstyle, Mademoiselle Hino? And look," he said, turning to Alph, "they brought their puppy to play with us! My pets meet their pet! Careful, girls. She bites, and you don't know where she's been. She might be rabid."

Alph gritted her teeth and snarled, throwing up a few more barriers. Anything to keep them safe from the madman and his attack squad for a few seconds longer…

"And Iron Mouse," said Joker. Blood-colored stars lit within the dark eyes of his mask. "Dear oh dear. Not that I ever expected much from you anyway, but fraternizing with the enemy? Tsk, tsk. I think I shall pick out a special spot on the Merry-Go-Round for you..."

Unable to speak, Iron Mouse quaked in terror and scrambled backward to the relative safety of the rescue team. At least they probably weren't serious about killing her, or worse.

"Master," said Bad End Beauty. "The surprise?"

"Ah, yes, of course! The surprise!" Joker put a hand to his scarred brow in mock embarrassment. "You see, girls, I've been thinking… while I adore having so much fun with you, it's just not the same when the whole team isn't together, n'est pas? You don't color-coordinate nearly as well with someone missing. Therefore…"

Another streak of darkness at Joker's side. The new arrival was dressed in the same body-hugging black suit, this one accented with yellow. She was shorter than the others, her face framed by a fan of blonde hair…

Marine and Twinkle both went white as sheets.

"That—" Marine stammered. Freezing fingers gripped her heart. "That can't be, that isn't… Yayoi-chan…?"

The newest Bad End Precure wore the face of the shy, timid manga artist that they knew so well... but hers was warped and twisted with cruelty. Her features were sharpened, shadowed, harsh and jarring where they should have been soft and gentle. She gazed at them with blank golden eyes, put a finger to her lip, and giggled.

The Lighthouse

Vertex Point Three

"Jenny…!"

"Lynn!"

"Come here…!"

A vision resplendent in a sparkling wedding gown ran up the stairs, into the waiting arms of her beloved, dashing and handsome in the cape and uniform of an ancient Earth naval officer. They broke the embrace just long enough to smile at one another.

"Welcome back," the caped officer said as she laid her hands on the bride's shoulders.

"I've returned," said the bride, flushed and radiantly happy.

In full view of the bridge crew, uncaring that they were watching, the two girls leaned close together. Their lips met deeply, passionately… at last, the lovers were reunited. Immediately, the bridge crew erupted in wild cheers and applause.

A few seconds later, the lips of the two watching Jenny and Lynn met in a similar manner. Though it was softer, more hesitant and less certain than what happened on the holo-screen, there was no less love, warmth, and passion between them. Bathed in the cool blue glow of the screen and wrapped in blankets, both clutching mugs of steaming hot cocoa, Yayoi Kise and Yui Nanase kissed for the first time… and it was good. More than good, it was fantastic.

"You… you were right about this series," said Yui once they parted. She was slightly out of breath, and her glasses were fogged. "It's really good…"

"I knew you'd like it." Yayoi snuggled into her shoulder. Yui's lips tasted of chocolate, with just the right amount of marshmallows. Replicated or not, hot cocoa was hot cocoa… but she felt she would remember this cup, this taste, this sweetness, for the rest of her days. Bliss. Yayoi's vision grew misty, then blurred with moisture…

"Yayoi-chan?" Yui fumbled for the remote in the blankets, trying to find the pause button… before she remembered that there was no remote, the holo-screen responded to gestures. Extracting one arm, she made a pinching motion at the screen. Jenny and Lynn's reunion froze. "Yayoi, are you okay? W-was that too soon…?"

"No, no, not at all, I'm sorry!" said Yayoi, wiping her eyes with the corner of her blanket. "You know how I feel about you, Yui-chan." Her burning cheeks were visible even by the blue glow of the screen. "I… was actually wondering when we were gonna… you know… do that, but I didn't... know how to ask. It… it was everything I hoped for."

"As long as you're all right." Yui softly bumped her forehead against her friend's… her girlfriend's. How wonderful it was to finally be official about that.

"I'm pretty sure I am," said Yayoi. "I really don't know what came over me. For a second, I felt cold…"

{La Fin de Toute

(formerly Galactica Palace)

38th Floor, Sector Mu

"Yayoi-chan?" said Bad End Peace. She tilted her head in a quizzical manner. "Who's that?"

"No one you need to worry about right now, cherie." The harlequin's voice dripped like oil. "You'll probably be torturing her soon enough."

Peace's face split into a smile entirely too similar to Joker's. "Oh, yay! New people to torture, that sounds like fun~."

Aghast and confused, Twinkle looked from Marine to the others. "But… but Yayoi-chan is back at— She can't be here…!"

"Oh, she's not." Joker shrugged. "You know what they say about the one that got away… I thought that letting her scurry back to you all would send a message, but given that you're all here, it's apparent that it hasn't sunk in. I had to have the Will bring in an understudy, you see." Here he laid his spindly fingers on Peace's shoulders, making her shiver. "Girls, this is—or was—Kanna Kise, your new-and-improved Bad End Peace. Dear Kanna was from the most interesting timeline… apparently, this Yayoi, or Kanna rather, never became a Precure, and never even met the rest of you, or me! Imagine! I could only conclude that her life must have been so dreary, so mundane without us all… so I had the Will bring her here." A hush fell upon him, he sounded almost nostalgic. "I helped Kanna here rehearse and practice, and bit by teensy little bit, I molded her into the perfect replacement for our missing Yayoi on the team. You wouldn't believe how long it took!" A pause. "Though actually, It's probably far less time than you think…"

To the astonishment of all who knew her, Neptune's calm broke. "You monster…!" she hissed at Joker through clenched teeth. "How dare you… how dare you take an innocent child and—"

"'Innocent!'" At that, Peace burst into wild, strident laughter that rang off the hangar's metallic walls. "'Innocent', Master Joker! She's kinda late for that. Really late…"

"Quite," said Joker. "Oh, don't make that face, Mademoiselle Kaioh, and shame on you for contemplating such things. Why would I do that when there are so many other, less crude ways of bending people to my will? Really, I consider myself a gentleman, and I'm offended that you would think otherwise. You're supposed to be an adult."

Still, Neptune shook, her insides like a dense, writhing knot… The Kanna Kise before them had been a civilian, unaware of this war, unaware of anything. There was no reason to kidnap and break the poor girl, no reason to involve her at all, other than brutal, heartless cruelty.

"So, my lovelies, are we all prepared?" Joker said to his troops.

"Yes, Master!" the Bad End Precure chorused.

"Then I suggest you get to it. Break a leg… or several legs. Enjoy, girls, and don't worry! I'm always watching from the wings." With that, the harlequin took a bow...

"JOKER…!" Alph's claws raked the air, sending a triple set of curving energy blades scything at his face, but he was already gone, vanished as quickly as he had come. The Bad End Cures split apart in perfect synchronization, and they fell upon the team like meteors.

Alph was the first to take a hit, as Bad End Sunny's fist smashed through her barriers like a brick through glass, sank into her gut, and propelled her straight upward into the hangar ceiling. Her impact made an impression in the steel alloy inches deep.

"Aww, Sunny, no fair! I wanted to pet the doggy first!" Peace's cheeks puffed up in a childish pout. "Guess I'll have to settle for the mousie…" Cackling, she launched herself at Iron Mouse, a black and golden bullet, electricity crackling between her spread fingertips. "C'mere, mousie, I wanna see how cute you are when you're turned inside out~!"

Iron Mouse cowered in place, paralyzed with fear, watching death come barreling at her… She was only saved by a flying kick from Twinkle, who crashed into Peace from her left and plowed her into one of the crystalline tank-like constructs against the wall.

"Mouse, if you're not gonna fight, find a place to hide!" said Twinkle over her shoulder. "We can't fight them off and protect you!"

"I— Twinkle, look out!"

Peace was back up, barely fazed by her collision. Pouncing on Twinkle's back, she seized her two voluminous orange pigtails and flashed another demonic smile. "Hey, Mouse! Watch, and guess what this is." With an ear-splitting crack, a massive spear of purple lightning struck the two from above. Voltage coursed through both their bodies, but it was Twinkle who screamed, Peace only laughed… When her victim finally collapsed in a heap, Peace stood, singed and convulsing through her giggles. "It's a Twinkle Yell. G-get it? Like the little pink spore? Hee hee hee..."

Iron Mouse couldn't speak. She knew Joker considered these Precure to be special, everyone knew that… with them, his grudge was personal. But faced with the end result of whatever he had done to them all those times he summoned them to his private room…

"I wonder," said Peace in singsong. Arcs crackled and leaped up and down her arms. "How much electricity does it take to make a regular old mouse into a Pikachu? You wanna try to make a guess?"

"Beauty, stop! Come on, Reika, you've gotta snap out of it!" Marine held her arms crossed in front of her fact in an X-shape, a desperate attempt to fend off the bone-chilling sword of ice that Bad End Beauty brought crashing down on her, over and over, unrelenting. "Please, Reika-chan, fight it!"

Beauty's lip curled into a cold sneer. "Rude girl," she said. "Rude, and inelegant… how hideous. Disappear from my sight, please. Bad End Blizzard."

Marine tumbled to one side, but Beauty's blast of freezing wind and shards of ice followed her and washed over her with a chill far too intense to be natural. Her movements slowed, then stopped as purple-flecked ice crystals spread and crawled over her skin. Paralyzed and helpless, she could only watch Beauty raise her sword again…

"Holy Inferno!" Twin flaming cyclones roared to life, scouring the spot Beauty had been standing and the five meters of steel behind her, melting it into red-hot slag. Mars's wings stood out fiery and proud from the red streaks in her hair as she ran to Marine's aid. "Hang on, Marine, I've got you!"

"M-M-M-M-Mars…" Marine's teeth chattered like castanets; she could barely feel the heat from Mars's wings. "D-don't h-hurt them, p-please! Th-they d-don't know what they're d-doing—"

"They're trying to kill us, and they will if we don't get out of here!"

Neptune exchanged blows with Happy and Bad End March as best she was able, but she felt herself rapidly losing ground. Each of Happy's attacks was charged with dark energy, just enough to induce a numbing sensation whenever she connected, and March moved like a whirling dervish, inhumanly fast and unpredictable. At least March was largely silent; Happy shrieked and brayed like a hyena, delighted with every small amount of pain she could inflict. Haruka, Neptune thought as March's heel struck the back of her neck and drove her to the floor. If Haruka were here, she and I could fight them. We could win. But Haruka isn't here… They stole Haruka from me, corrupted her into a monster, just like these poor girls… The heel came down a second time, and the steel plate beneath her buckled with the force of the blow. Through eyes clouded by pain, she saw Sunny approaching her, the flickering shadows cast by her flames making her features appear even more deformed. Anger swelled within her, Neptune attempted to stand—

Happy caught the back of Neptune's head, gripped her fingers in her teal hair, and slammed her face-first into the floor plating. "Bupupu~, trying to leave already? Aww, Neptune, you should stay! We're having so much fun, I'm sure we can make you smile!"

"Yeah, it ain't fair to leave when the show's just gettin' started," said Sunny. She tossed a purple fireball from one hand to the other. "Ya gotta stay for the fireworks."

A vermillion comet fell from the ceiling. The hangar floor shuddered with its impact; bloodied but alive, Alph rose from the shallow crater she had made in the steel plate beneath her. "If it's fireworks you want… Chain Bind!" A fiery orange chain shot from the spell circle that carved itself in the air before her palm. Straight and true, it sailed across the hangar… Peace and Beauty dived out of its way, but the chain was not aiming for either of them. It struck a barrel on one of the tank-like constructs, wrapped around it, and retracted itself, pulling the tank into Alph's waiting hands. Her fingers gripped the barrel, there was a groan of tortured metal as her claws gouged the metal surface, and she lifted it off the floor with effortless ease. "Take this!" she roared as she swung the tank like a batter at the plate. Happy, March, and Sunny were too flummoxed by the sight to dodge in time; they were swatted against the hangar walls like so many flies.

"Come on!" Alph dropped the tank; it struck the floor with a thunderous sound. "Everyone who can still stand, on me, right now! Tactical retreat!"

"And where do you think you're going, doggy?" said Peace from her hiding spot, floating upside down beneath a gantry. "I still have… let's see, one, two, three, four, five of your screaming voices left to hear! I wanna know what you all sound like~." A dizzying series of blinks took her from the gantry to the top of the discarded tank, to the hatch, to just behind Alph. "Here, girl," she said with a vicious grin as she jabbed two fingers into her target's back. "Shake!" Her charge was loosed into Alph's body, the wolf familiar bucked and spasmed… "Good dog. Now, play dead~."

This is insane. That thought ran through Iron Mouse's head at intervals while she crouched beneath one of the remaining tanks. Too small and insignificant to be noticed by the Bad Ends, hopefully. This is insane. I have to run, I have to get out of here…

"G-go to hell…" Alph growled, struggling to right herself. Her limbs were numb, still tingling with residual electricity.

"Tch." Beauty sneered and struck her across the face with the flat of her ice sword. "Filthy mongrels should take care not to bark out of turn."

They're outnumbered, thought Iron Mouse. Five to four. And I'm nowhere near strong enough to fight my way out all alone…

"Fire Soul!"

"Precure Blue Forte Wave!"

The invocations came from Mars and Marine, regrouped at the southwest corner of the hangar. A helix of flame and high-pressure water spiraled in the direction of Peace and Beauty…

"Bad End Shower!"

"Bad End Fire!"

"Bad End Shoot!"

… and the twin streams were met head-on by three vectors from Happy, Sunny, and March, all recovered from Alph's attack. Their opposing energies collided, straining back and forth against each other in a battle for dominance. The snarl of light and dark power at the intersection writhed and bulged, spitting discharges that carved smoking, white-hot gashes in the tanks, the walls, the floor…

Peace's face twisted in the shifting light of the collision. She laughed the laugh that sounded too much like Joker's and joined her teammates, adding her power to theirs. When Beauty did the same, the dark portion of the intersection swelled to twice its size, forcing back Mars's and Marine's helix and rapidly gaining ground.

"Deep Submerge…!"

"Precure Twinkle Humming!"

Neptune and Twinkle were back up, but just barely. One bleeding freely from her nose and mouth, the other blackened with burns, they added both their powers to the stream. Slowly, their efforts pushed the intersection back to the center.

"Thunder Fall!" And there was Alph, her hands ablaze with light, contributing her own spell. Now it was five against five. Beneath the intersection, the steel floor turned red, then white, and began to melt. "Everyone, don't hold back!" she shouted over the roar of the energy storm. "We can win this!" Despite her words of encouragement, the two beams now appeared equally matched, neither giving quarter. Their intersection grew, and grew, and grew, heat pouring off of it in waves as it doubled, then tripled its size…

"Wait!" came the small voice from underneath the tank. Iron Mouse clambered out of her hiding spot and pulled back the furry ruffs of her gloves to expose her jeweled bracelets. Crossing her arms, she cried out: "G-Galactica CRUNCH…!"

That did it. Though the power of the false Senshi's attack paled in comparison to any of the others, it tipped the scales. The beam's light portion dwarfed its dark counterpart and raced back along its path. Six simultaneous attacks struck the astonished Bad End Cures and detonated, scattering them. A quintet of black-clad bodies slammed into unyielding steel surfaces.

Pale and sweating, Marine stared at Iron Mouse in disbelief. "... Really?"

"It was either help you idiots or get blown up!" Iron Mouse squealed, flailing her arms. "Can we please get out of here?!"

Laughter. It came from one of the overhanging gantries, where four girls dressed in revealing dancers' clothes lounged together, appearing heedless of the destruction that had torn apart the hangar. "Oh, I don't know, Mouse," said the one in red. "The Bad Ends had their turn, but we're not finished with you."

Mars and Neptune both drew back in shock.

"Oh, now what?!" Twinkle moaned.

"See," VesVes continued, gesturing to her sisters, "the way we see it, you're our toy, Mouse. So the job of punishing you goes to us, the Amazoness Quartet."

"PallaPalla doesn't like it when her toys break," said the shortest of them, wearing blue. Her voice was high-pitched and childish. "Unless PallaPalla gets to break them~!"

"I get first dibs this time," said the third, dressed in green, burly and tough. She pounded her fist into her palm and cracked her knuckles. "VesVes got to burn her last time, I wanna see how much I can bend her before she breaks."

In contrast to the others, the one in shades of pink and yellow spoke calmly and politely. "Wait your turn, JunJun," said CereCere. "All of us have our hobbies."

"I—" Mars was at a total loss. Both sides of her had memories of the Amazons, and both sides knew they were never truly evil, just puppets of their true enemies. Now it was their turn to be faced with fighting their former friends. "Neptune, ideas?"

"None, I'm afraid." Neptune leaned against Mars's shoulder for support and wiped a thread of blood from her chin with the back of her hand. "The Amazons were hardly predictable, as I recall. At least we have the advantage in numbers…"

"Dammit, we don't have time for this!" Alph had officially had enough. She snarled, dropped into a crouch, and propelled herself at the new arrivals, claws bared.

"Rafflesia Orb," said CereCere. She sounded almost bored. A yellow sphere the size of a billiard ball appeared in her hand, and she tossed it at Alph with a casual air.

The wolf familiar's action was instinctive and immediate; her claws cut cleanly through the sphere, which split open and immersed her in a pink puff of smoke. Alph howled in dismay, clapped her hands over her nose and mouth, and fell back to the floor with a crash, retching and gagging. It was another few seconds before the rest sensed it: the unmistakable, eye-watering stench of fresh carrion.

"Oh God!" said Marine over a fit of coughing. "What the hell?!"

"B-back up…" Alph climbed unsteadily to her feet, her eyes red, bleary, and streaming. "E-everyone, back up, out of the hatch… I'll try to hold them off with barriers, just go!"

"But Miss Fluffy—"

"Just go!" Alph snapped. "Damn it, Twinkle, I won't be of any help to you until I can smell again! Run, find Black and Fortune and the others, I'll be behind you!"

With little other choice, they ran… and Alph followed after them in wolf form, running at full tilt and erecting another barrier each time her paws struck the floor. Keeping so many active was a drain on her already-taxed mana, but she already felt the Amazons hammering at the first one, seconds away from breaking through.

Damn… she thought, shaking herself vigorously in mid-stride. It didn't help; the effects of the Amazon's trick were hundreds of times worse for her than for the others, and they would not wear off for a long time yet. The foul odor of the cloud blocked out all else… her sense of smell was effectively dead. For a wolf, that was almost as crippling as cutting off a leg. All her other senses strained to compensate, but without her primary method of navigating or telling friend from foe… She applied all her focus not spent on barriers to following Iron Mouse's tail as the false Senshi scrambled to keep up with the others.

So when the group came to a halt after Kaiser only knew how many more corridors, her first instinct was to rush to the front, raise her hackles, and snarl at whoever was in their way. Two strangers, one in red and one in yellow, both with weapons…

"Wh-what—" said the shorter one of the two, raising a spear. "What the hell is that?!"

"Easy, easy! That's Alph-san, she's with us!" That voice was Marine's. It rose with suspicion as she said: "And just who are you?!"

Another voice Alph recognized: Chibi-Moon. "Mami and Kyoko, they're from Madoka's world, Sakura and I saved them!"

"Introductions later," said Neptune. "We must find Black and Fortune and leave this place."

"How?! Our Device thingies aren't working, and if we can't transport out of here..."

"Whatever you're going to do," said Alph, "do it fast. The Amazons are coming after us, and my barriers aren't holding for long." It was true: Alph felt them being smashed through almost as fast as she could place them.

"Did that dog just talk…?" said the second stranger. Prim and proper, Alph thought. Mature. Quite well-developed, too.

"I—" said another voice, a softer voice. Sakura. "Black and Fortune are beneath us, right? I-I think I can help, but I'll need all of you to share your power with me. Everyone, make a circle."

They did; eight gathered around the Cardcaptor and held hands, Alph shifting forms once again to join them. As Sakura's magic circle lit up beneath them, expanding to encompass them all, Alph felt her barriers shattering at a rising rate. That most likely meant that the Bad End Cures were up and kicking again. "Kinomoto, hurry!" Now she was sure she heard Peace's demented laughter from some faraway corridor…

"Almost ready! Please," she said to the Card between her fingers, "take us to our friends! THROUGH!"

Magic power flowed from each of them into Sakura, and there was a bizarre sensation of their bodies losing mass, becoming intangible. For Chibi-Moon, it was only a little less frightening than the street in Jamais Ville that turned itself into a bog. At least this process was gradual… at first. Then the nine of them began to sink, faster and faster. Entire floors passed by them in a vertical blur. How Sakura could tell when to stop her Card and solidify them again. As they descended, the brief flashes they saw of the corridors… changed, becoming less and less austere and metallic, and more asymmetrical, more gnarled, more… organic.

And with a jolt, ten bodies struck stable ground at once, and there was a collective "Ooof!"

Again Alph shook herself. Still no sense of smell, damn. "Is everyone all right?"

Nine voices answered in reply: "Okay here, Miss Fluffy." "I appear to be as well." "My butt hurts, and I think I'm gonna be sick again, but I'll be okay." "H-here, Alph-san." "I'm here too." "This is insane…" "Shut up, Mouse!" "Guess I'm fine. Mami, you?" "Here. But where is here...?"

An eleventh voice, strong and boyish: "Unbelievable… you guys sure can make an entrance!" A hand extended to grasp Alph's and help her up. "Glad you finally made it."

"Black…?" Slowly, Alph began to smile. "You're here. Which means…"

Her face darkened. "Yeah, this is it, just like I said," said Nagisa Misumi, Cure Black. "The Merry-Go-Round. I warn you, it's not a pretty sight."

"Gross, what's with the floor here? It's squishy… and it feels like it's..." Twinkle's voice trailed off. "... breathing…"

There was a reason for that. They stood on a surface that flexed beneath their weight, mostly dark maroon tissue, but laced with gleaming steel bearing fine, integrated circuit patterns. Their descent had left them in an offshoot tunnel composed of the stuff, but through its mouth, they saw it for the first time...

The Merry-Go-Round.

An immense, chaotic tower of machinery, wires, circuitry, and cold grey iron, blended with muscle, tissue, bone, and sinew, all intertwined so closely that it was difficult to tell where the technological ended and the biological began. It was as wide around as a skyscraper, and a ghastly, stale, piecemeal light illuminated it from somewhere within. There was no logic to its construction that they could see; here and there were irregular patches of tech, sometimes several meters wide, and adjoining those were hideous, throbbing growths, lined with veins crisscrossing diseased purple-black flesh. The tower stretched up, up, up, farther than their eyes could see… and arranged upon it in the same nonsensical fashion were the bodies of the prisoners.

Friends, loved ones, allies, and strangers alike, from countless worlds throughout all five vertices of the universe. Hundreds upon hundreds of them: elders and children, experienced warriors and civilians, shapes and sizes of people from every walk of life, all bound to Joker's monstrosity. For most of them, their limbs were engulfed by the Merry-Go-Round's structure, as if it had grown around them like a festering mold; several dozen unlucky ones hung half-swallowed in it, secured at their torsos by vile, thick-lipped orifices. The only thing all prisoners had in common was the grotesque mask clamped over each of their faces. Each mask pulsed with lines of light that flowed into the thick rope… cable…? Vein…? All three? … placed between the subject's hidden eyes, which attached it to the main structure. The masks gleamed with moisture, made of opaque, red-black, cancerous flesh, secured to each face with a ring of rotted teeth.

The group had no words. There was only horror, revulsion, and the crushing knowledge that there was no way to save them all, not with their numbers. Even finding the ones they were looking for was…

"I know," said Black, low and despairing. "Fortune's somewhere up there right now, looking for Cure Honey. We couldn't find White, we already looked. Either she's not here, or she's—"

"She's alive," said Alph, daring herself to hope. "She has to be. You said so yourself. If she weren't, you'd be—"

"Yeah." Black closed her eyes. "I'd have changed back."

"Everyone," said a voice from above. Iona Hikawa, Cure Fortune, descended like a lavender angel, holding a pallid, bloodstained comrade in her arms. "I found her, she's here..."

"My God!" Marine clapped both hands over her mouth, stifling a scream. "What did this thing do to her…?"

"Clear a space, clear a space! She needs medical attention, right away!" Alph waved the rest of the group away as Fortune touched down. When she saw the raw, red patches of skin on Cure Honey's arms and legs, evidence of entire layers of skin being torn away, she knew with sobering certainty that her healing magic was not up to the task, not for this. "Is…" Her throat was tight. "Is there anyone here who can heal her? Or at least stabilize her…"

"Chibi-Moon?" said Sakura, looking in her friend's direction.

"I don't think I have another Escalation in me, not yet," said Chibi-Moon, blinking back tears. "I'm sorry."

"Please, allow me." Mami came forward and knelt by Honey's side. "I can't do much, but I should be able to help a little." She closed her eyes, and a golden glow from her hands sank into Honey's many wounds.

The process took long, much longer than Alph liked. "We don't have time to heal her all the way," she said to the new girl. "If she can stand and run with us, that's all we can ask for."

"I'm trying my best." Mami wiped sweat from her brow. The healing was more difficult than it should have been, as if something were resisting her magic…

Biting back her impatience, Alph sniffed and went to stand by Fortune's side. "Hikawa, did you find your sister?"

"No." Her response was curt. Obviously, her part of the mission had not gone well.

"I think—" Mami began.

"Wait." Alph's brows furrowed. Slowly, her ears began to perk. "I think that damned smell is wearing off, but… but I'm not sure. I'm picking up something else, but… but it's weird. Black, Fortune, have you two been—"

They all had only a split-second to register Black's uncharacteristic cruel smirk before the Precure leader crouched down and placed her palms on the technorganic floor. "Oh dear," she said, in a voice that was not her own, "It appears your time is drawing shorter than you thought."

Every hair on Alph's tail stood up. "Everyone, move! It's—"

Eleven geysers of wine-colored fluid erupted from the floor and fell upon everyone, even the unconscious Honey... The stuff stretched, thinned, and snapped tight, crushing arms to sides and legs together, straight-jacketing the rescue team before they could register what was happening. Those able to comprehend what they were witnessing saw Black's hands losing shape, forming puddles of the strange ooze, the puddles channeling into eleven branches and sinking into the nooks and crevices of the floor…

Alph thrashed back and forth, but even her strength had no effect on the gel. "Dammit, who the hell are you? What did you do with Black…?"

Black's face melted off, sliding down her neck and body and coming to a stop one of the puddles… then her whole body melted, running in rivulets. In her place, shedding Black's appearance like a shell, was a nude, featureless woman composed of reddish-purple slime, her eyes smooth, green, and featureless like polished emeralds. "Your friend Cure Black was very stubborn," she said with a bubbling laugh. "I had to swallow her to keep her still long enough to master her appearance…"

Iron Mouse and Sakura began to scream. There were curses from Kyoko, Twinkle, and Mars, and the rest were stunned silent. Panicking. Losing control. Everything falling apart...

Alph frantically scanned the Merry-Go-Round's chamber for any small sign of hope, anything they could use to escape… Her gaze landed on Fortune, standing among them unbound, making no motion to help. Her heart plummeted down into her stomach. No. Not her… "F-Fortune…?"

As she watched, Fortune lost all color, her uniform melted, her eyes turned green and gleaming… "It's pointless to resist," she said, flat and emotionless… her voice watery, just like their captor's…

"Ah yes, Jamanen's Drone is right at that," said one more voice, far too familiar. "My apologies for the deception, but… well, you're all here, aren't you? All the characters of this subplot, together at last." Without even his customary streak of darkness to mark his entrance, Joker walked out of thin air, right in the center of them all, inches away yet totally out of their reach. And around the chamber, in flashes of light, there came the Amazon Quartet, the Bad End Precure... even Sayaka Miki appeared above them, watching the captives in silence. Dozens of Youma, Droids, Daimon, Lemures, Phages, Zakenna… one after another, by the score, by the hundred… as if half of Dead End's army had expected them to come here.

"Oh, we did," said Joker, leaning over Alph where she lay bound. Like he knew what she was thinking. "We knew. We waited, we were patient. And despite the little misstep that cost us our dear, departed Viluy, for the most part, the farce went as I planned. So congratulations to you all!" The harlequin broke into polite applause. "Mission accomplished."

END OF CHAPTER 33