Chapter 51: Here Upon These Stones

-VERTEX ONE: 15.556984-

Ananke, in Orbit of Jupiter

Approximately 722 Million Kilometers from Earth

Pain. Her entire world, her entire being, was pain… but she couldn't stop yet. Not when she was so close. She would rest for now, but she refused to stop.

She lay on her side in the blueish methane snow blanketing the frigid, dead rock, staring at the palm of her hand with her one working eye. Once pristine, her flesh was now carpeted by gnarled scar tissue, hardened and shiny and crisscrossed with raised ropes of collagen. Much of her body looked the same; it would be a long time—if ever—before all of her scars healed, even with the full range of her powers returned. Even if they did, she wondered if she should keep the scars, wear them as a monument to the ordeal that she survived.

The ones who gave her those scars made a grave mistake. They should have killed her when they had the chance, because when she managed to tear her way out of their infernal torture device, she snapped the spine of the first fool she saw before escaping into the nearest thing that looked like a warp portal. For almost every waking second since then, she thought about how she would pay them back. Each and every one of them responsible, their very souls would writhe for the rest of time for what they did to her… but not right now. Not yet.

It took time, too much time, for her body to heal as much as it had. It took more time still to make it this far, to the twelfth of the nearly eighty moons in orbit of this planet… but now she was almost there. She was almost to Earth.

The methane snow squeaked as she rolled onto her back. Whenever she moved, the snow evaporated into vapor, then immediately froze and snowed down again, on and around her. Its smell was noxious, but bracing… she used the sour odor as an anchor, a way to stay alive and awake to do what she had to do.

Millions and millions of lights shone down from above her, standing out from the darkness of space. Countless other stars and planets across the cosmos, countless other worlds… many of them she had visited long before, in different circumstances. On her way here, she returned to many of those worlds, during the other times when her aching body could move no more without rest. There, she told the people she met that they would follow her lead if they wished to seek revenge as she sought. She left no doubts about her intentions, and she let no one aid her. Always fighting and clawing to survive and emerge victorious, that was her way. From those foreign stars, others might follow or they might not. Though she might fight alongside them, might perhaps even lead them if the need arose, she would never truly consider them comrades. She would stand alone, apart from them, as she had always done before. Alone, now and forever, until universe's end.

One light in particular stood out from the others, a banded red-yellow disc that she could encircle with her thumb and forefinger: Jupiter, this moon's parent. The stellar bodies of the Sol System guarded the Earth and its moon much as their Sailor Senshi guarded the Moon Princess, and the energy of each planet was normally like feeling sunshine on her skin. At the moment, Jupiter's ambient power was dim, its light was weak and cold. Something had gone terribly wrong.

It's all gone wrong.

That was another voice, a stranger's voice in the back of her mind. It had been there often since she awakened, always speaking the same words. She had grown quite tired of hearing that voice, and she intended to find answers as to who it belonged to… but that was secondary to making Dead End pay for her scars, for her torture and humiliation.

She raised her right hand to the cold and endless dark, blotting out Jupiter's wounded light with her palm. With some difficulty, she curled her fingers and thumb into a fist. Pain, pain and stiffness… but a fist was more than she could manage a month ago. Bit by bit, little by little, she grew stronger. The pain was still there, but in time she would conquer it, force it to bend to her.

When it did, and when she could use both hands with all her strength, she vowed that she would take them and use them to personally tear every last bone from Joker's body, one at a time. Her cracked and pitted lips spread into a smile at the thought.

Azabu-Juuban, Minato Ward, Tokyo

Clouds grew thick in the sky overhead, an overhanging ceiling shaded white and grey. The northeast portion of the Juuban district seemed prime for a storm, but perhaps not of the sort that the populace expected. Meteorologists observing the clouds might have noted the unnatural speed at which they developed, or that their spread seemed confined to the northeast area of Azabu-Juuban, and the northeast area only. Perhaps one in a hundred, a particularly observant meteorologist, would have made the connection between the outermost fringes of the cloudbank and the four black crystal spires, which had appeared overnight the week before.

Local authorities were baffled. The motives of the demons and other monsters prone to attacking the district were difficult to comprehend at best, but the appearance and placement of the four spires seemed more random than almost anything that had been seen in the past eight years. All four were at least a hundred meters tall and twenty meters across, jet-black and crackling with dark energy. They commanded over the district, bringing with them all the dread and implications of multiple Towers of Babel.

One was planted in the north section of the ninth block, a residential area home to multiple apartment complexes and not much else. Southeast of it, the second spire now occupied much of Azabu-dori Avenue on the district's eastern border, which upset the business of a fairly respectable Taiwanese restaurant nearby. The third sat in the center of a four-way intersection, narrowly missing the edge of the Juuban Patio where the beloved statue of the Girl in the Red Shoes still stood no worse for wear, much to the relief of the residents. The fourth was the most disruptive of all, though technically it was just over the Juuban district's northeasternmost border. Its appearance demolished part of the massive Shin Ichinohashi Crossing Area overpass, preventing travel both on the pass and in the junction underneath it.

The government and the police could understand taking the intersections, though doing so in a relatively small ward like Minato seemed a waste of effort. The placement of the other two baffled even their best experts… who were already strained enough by the occupation of the monsters and the inexplicable phenomenon on the southwestern side of the district, in another apparently random location. What was so important at those four points that they felt the need to assert their dominance there?

The answer would have only baffled them further. The four points themselves were of no consequence, but if one were to mark the crystal spires' locations on a map and draw a circle connecting them, that circle would measure a precise one-hundred meter radius around one particular area. The circle's center of origin was a place of no importance to the experts: a small arcade called the Game Center Crown, destroyed several months ago in an explosion the night the demons first reemerged and besieged the city. Unlikely as it would seem to said experts, that location was of critical importance to both the Morning Lights and Dead End…

Tendrils of mist made a thin contrail behind Sakura Kinomoto, emerging from the thick cloudbank atop her Sealing Wand. The wand's wings spread wide to slow her descent as she alighted atop the H.B. Building, sixty meters from the northwest spire and just a stone's throw from the location of the Osa-P Jewellers, where Sailor Moon's return after five years was already the stuff of local legend. At seven stories tall, the H.B. Building's roof was a decent enough place to scope out the district without being noticed.

Madoka Kaname rose to greet her as she touched down. The expression on Sakura's face said it all, but still she asked, "How did it go, Sakura-chan?"

"No good," said Sakura, shaking her head. With a flick of her fingers, the CLOUD Card dematerialized. "I scouted the whole circle, all the way around, and I got as close as I could to the field without them seeing me. I couldn't find any way in that won't let them know we're here."

"And we don't want that, not yet," said Hotaru Tomoe, Sailor Saturn. Shadows settled on her pale face as she pondered. "Maybe we're thinking about this the wrong way. If there's no way in from above…"

"Street level?" said Chibi-Usa Tsukino, Sailor Chibi-Moon, standing by the lip of the building. "I mean, if nothing else works. It's better than coming up through the sewers or something."

"I did see a bunch of security checkpoints with guards. Human guards," said Sakura before Madoka could ask.

Chibi-Moon blanched. "Betcha anything they've been brainwashed. That's on-brand for the bad guys we Senshi usually fight."

"In which case, we can't risk fighting them," said Madoka. "Even if they're not being controlled, all it takes is one of them to sound an alarm. Sakura-chan, maybe your SLEEP Card?"

"SLEEP might work, but then again…" Sakura dithered from one foot to the other. "The circle is a really big area to cover, and I'm not sure she could manage the whole thing with the magic I've got right now. If she misses somebody, that somebody will notice everybody else falling asleep, and…" There was no need to finish that thought.

"So we're back to square one." Chibi-Moon folded her arms. "What now? I mean, if we can't sneak in quietly, then we might as well start being loud early, right? Sakura-chan, you could just go down to the street and use that Card right here."

A pleading sound slipped from Sakura's lips, and her face scrunched up in a way that reminded Chibi-Moon of a hamster's. "I really don't want to use that one before I have to, it's gonna be embarrassing enough to use it at all!"
"All right, all right." Moving back to the lip overlooking the street, Chibi-Moon sat and dangled her legs over the side, kicking them absently as she gazed from one spire to another. One, two, three, four of them. Ugly, black, crackling shapes squatting in their poor town, which had already suffered so much… and on the horizon to the southwest, somewhere in the residential district, there was that ghastly tower…

She had conquered her old fear of the Malefic Black Crystal for the most part... notwithstanding that awful vision from the Insecurity System back at Dead End's palace. Helping to destroy it and Wiseman (and/or Death Phantom, and/or Nemesis) with her own two hands went a long way toward putting the nightmares of the past to bed. The spires were most likely made of Black Crystal, or at least they reminded her enough of it… but she could handle them. These new things, though… they made her stomach twist into knots that made her old fears seem nostalgic by comparison. An entire section of town and everything in it, twisted into a grotesque, tapering spiral, tall enough that it seemed to be halfway to the stars. A Tower of Geddon.

The reports from the ABC team's mission to Uminari last month only confirmed those fears: the Towers of Geddon had destabilizing effects on the reality around them, similar to Jamais Ville, the empty smoke-and-glass city she and Sakura had been trapped in back in Dead End's palace. The Towers made worlds wrong by their very presence, and they rendered space and time they occupied so distorted that they couldn't even be scanned, much less made sense of. And this one had manifested close enough to the location of the Tsukino household, still home to Ikuko-mama, Kenji-papa, and Shingo, that there was little way to tell if they were still alive and safe. For all the Lights could tell, the house and everyone in it had been caught up in that hellish spiral.

The Stranger, in her Cure Echo form, was currently scouting that area. Since nothing in the vicinity could be scanned, they needed someone to go in on foot, and the Stranger indicated that she was willing. Chibi-Moon conceded that she seemed a safer choice than sending anyone else; being a living space time distortion, she could simply call open a door and escape to the Lighthouse should anything happen. If she found that the Tsukinos were safe, she was to show them a hologram message from Usagi as Sailor Moon, telling them that the Stranger was a trusted ally and urging them to follow her to safety.

If it turned out that the house and its residents had indeed been caught in the Tower of Geddon… the Echo-Stranger was to return to the H.B. Building immediately and await further orders, for there was nothing else that could be done. Chibi-Moon tried desperately to avoid thinking about that possibility. Jamais Ville was traumatizing enough, and she only spent less than an hour there. The thought of being stuck inside a space where all the laws of nature were subject to bend or break at random, while having no idea what was happening or why… Horrible. She would almost rather be back in the Labyrinth with all the—

Instantly, her stomach squeezed down into a hard little stone knot. A full-body shiver started at the base of her spine and raced through her body until it reached the tips of each finger and toe, dragging a back tide of goosebumps and cold sweat along with it. No, on second thought, she wouldn't rather be stuck in the Labyrinth with all the you-know-whats, thank you very much.

The blunt end of the Silence Glaive tapped her on the head, right between her odango. "I could almost hear that," said Saturn from behind her. "Do we need to do another safety net question?"

Chibi-Moon chuckled weakly and brushed the Glaive aside… with great caution. "I don't think so. I'm in this until the end. Sorry, Saturn, I didn't mean to worry you."

"You don't ever need to apologize for not being okay," said Saturn. Her slender arms wrapped around Chibi-Moon from behind. "Especially not to me. We've both been through enough."

At that she had a genuine laugh, if somewhat fraught. "Have we ever!"
She heard rather than saw the impish smile. "Want to go down the list?"

"Sure," she said, counting off on her fingers. "Let's see, on my end we've got murderous psychos attacking and wrecking the planet, almost killing my mom and dad and the Senshi, and chasing me through time to kill me, all when I was still a little kid."

"Getting caught in an explosion in my father's lab when I was eight, which killed my mom... and me, in one timeline."

"Being stuck a thousand years in the past and unable to tell anybody about what was going on."

"Waking up to find out that my father had turned me into a cyborg. And or that he was possessed by an alien, and so was I."

"Being turned into an insane, evil version of myself by a skeleton, who was actually an undead exile, who was actually an evil black crystal. And a planet."

"I've done that too, more or less, except my father did it to me."

"Making out with my mind-controlled future dad while insane and evil, and almost destroying all of time and space."

"The alien that possessed my body taking me over and tearing me apart from the inside out."

"Having my heart or soul ripped out. By you, of all people."

"Dying, coming back as Sailor Saturn, destroying the Earth, dying again, then being reborn as a baby."

"That whole mess with Nehelenia. That one's for both of us."

"Mmm-hmm. And then I died again, and you faded out of existence."

"And now all of this." There was no need to clarify. "Enough trauma for a hundred lifetimes." Chibi-Moon sighed and leaned back into Saturn's embrace. "Sometimes I wonder… do you ever feel like someone up there has it out for us?"

The answer was frank and forthcoming, to a degree that surprised her. "I used to think so all the time," said Saturn.

Blinking, Chibi-Usa craned her neck back to look up at her partner. Briefly she wondered if that was a joke, but the sincerity of Saturn's smile disproved that. "R… really?"

"After the explosion at Papa's lab, and before I met you," said Saturn, brushing aside a stray lock of Chibi-Moon's hair. "For a lot of that time, I thought that God or someone up there was punishing me. I thought I didn't deserve to live, or to even hope that things might be better one day… and because I was alive and didn't deserve to be, I thought I was making Him—or them—angry. It took a long time to teach myself to think otherwise. Even after I met you, and even after I was reborn and got back my memories, those thoughts didn't all go away at once."

Chibi-Usa shivered. She knew about Hotaru's struggles with her inner darkness, supernatural and otherwise, but she had never discussed them so frankly before. It was unnerving, the idea that there was something she didn't know about Hotaru, even after all the time they had been together as best friends, and later girlfriends… "Where's all this coming from?" she asked, unable to contain the question.

One corner of Saturn's mouth turned up, just a smidge. "You'd be surprised," she said. "When I talk with Akemi-san, it ends up helping both of us. We're helping each other to see new perspectives, I think. Both of us can articulate our feelings better than we could before."

"For what it's worth, I thought that way a couple times during my trials." Sakura came to sit on the lip of the building to Chibi-Moon's left. She blushed, twiddling her fingers. "Um, that is to say… Sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt, and I definitely didn't mean to compare myself to what you went through, Saturn, sorry if it sounded that way—"

"It's all right. No offense taken."

"—but when the Cards were causing mischief or weird incidents week after week, and they always affected me or my friends or family, there were times I just thought, 'Why me? What did I do to deserve this?!'" Clutching her Sealing Wand, she stared off at the horizon, where the Tower of Geddon stuck up like an enormous splinter from a flat piece of wood. "That was before I knew that Clow-san had everything planned out from the beginning. The Cards weren't acting out to punish me, they were testing me to see if I was ready, and Clow-san always had faith in me, even when I didn't have faith in myself. He knew what I would become and pushed me along the path to get there, like a guardian angel that I didn't know I had…"

Now Madoka came to sit on Chibi-Moon's other side. "My memories still aren't perfect, just because there's so much to remember… too much for any human mind. But I was the 'somebody up there', you know. For a while." She took Chibi-Moon's hand in hers and squeezed. "So you can take it from me: it may feel like all the misfortune in the world falls on you, but for all the terrible, awful things that happen in the universe, this one or any of them… there's just as many good things. Sometimes there's more good things than bad, and sometimes there's less, but eventually it all balances out. Always."

"Like your Seed, Sakura-chan," Chibi-Moon mused. "Isn't that what Fantine-san said? Cosmos and Chaos in perfect balance."

Sakura clutched at her chest. "Right. And right now, Chaos is weighing down its side of the scales, maybe heavier than it ever has before… but that just means we need to push even harder, to bring back the balance. Right?"

There was a chorus of agreement.

"And if we pull this off tonight…" Chibi-Moon grew tense at the thought, but it was a good kind of tense, heavy with anticipation. "If we pull it off, we'll tip the scales back."
"When we pull it off," said Madoka, gentle but stern. "I believe in us and in our abilities. We'll do it."

She didn't dare question her. The once and maybe future goddess of magical girls? Doubting her could jinx the whole thing. "We'll do it," Chibi-Moon repeated.

"Is that…?" Sakura climbed off the lip and peered into the distance.

Chibi-Moon looked, and immediately smiled. It was too far to make out details at this distance, but from the way that the small shape bounded from building to building with jumps too high and far to be made by an ordinary human, that had to be the Stranger back from recon. "Huh," she said, warm with nostalgia and kinship. "I guess roof hopping is a magical girl thing that crosses universes. Usagi and the others have done it on patrol, and so have I. Kinda stops your heart the first couple times until you get used to it, but it's weird… I don't remember ever being taught how to do that."
"You too?!" said Madoka, her eyes wide. "I thought it was only a Puella Magi thing! It just… happens. You transform and you start jumping roofs."

"I've done it a couple times too," said Sakura. "When I went after stubborn Cards, mostly. I used the JUMP Card, but—"

Chibi-Moon didn't hear the rest. With every leap the Stranger made, her insides quivered a little more. Of course, it was possible that the Tsukinos were following her from the street level where she couldn't see, or maybe they followed Usagi's directions right away and evacuated… but her gut feeling told her that the Stranger was indeed returning alone. By the time she touched down on the H.B. Building's roof, her neck and brow were drenched in cold sweat. Her throat was too tight to speak; she cleared it a few times and croaked, "Um… are they…?"

The Echo-Stranger turned around, her bright, pastel, spring-colored costume in contrast to the deep blues and of the late hour. Her golden eyes were warm and understanding. She came to Chibi-Moon first, clutching something like a precious treasure and offering it to her.

All of Chibi-Moon's anxiety melted at once. The Echo-Stranger had brought her a single red rose, too perfect and full-bloomed to be natural. Its thorny stem pierced through a single sheet of paper, upon which was written a very short message in familiar handwriting: "They're safe."

"Mamoru…" Grateful tears welled up in her eyes, tears she was unable and unwilling to stop. Of course. What a classic Mamoru move, he came to the rescue without even being asked. Taking the rose in her hands was almost like feeling his embrace… the golden glow of his strength and confidence surged into her, and she could almost hear his whisper: It's okay, Chibi-Usa. Don't worry. Everything's going to be fine. And when Mamoru said it, she believed it.
"So the house was okay? It wasn't caught up in the Tower after all?" said Madoka.

The Echo-Stranger shook her head, then pressed her palms together. She then moved one hand away from the other until they were roughly fifty centimeters apart… Distance, but not a large one, Chibi-Moon guessed.

"Strange…" Madoka put her chin in her hand, brows furrowed. "If they're doing this on purpose, I wonder why they wouldn't put the Tower right on top of your house? Especially if it's that close by."

"Let's not question it," said Saturn, speaking Chibi-Moon's thoughts out loud. "We should be grateful that both the family and the house escaped unscathed."

Sakura gazed back at the Tower. "I kind of get what she means. The one in Uminari was in a weird place, too, but it didn't touch Nanoha-chan's house, or her school, or anything important. I wonder where this one sprung up?"

The Echo-Stranger's eyes lit up. She opened her mouth to speak… and when only silence followed, she snapped it shut again and fumed, her reddened cheeks puffed out.

"Hoeee~!" Sakura squeaked and flailed her arms like a human hummingbird. "S-sorry, Stranger-san, I didn't mean—"

"She may not be able to tell you in words," said a calm but steely voice from their AMPs, "but I can."

"Fantine-san!" Madoka stared wide-eyed at the red ribbon on her wrist. "Sorry, we just haven't heard from you in some time. Are you okay?"

"I've been fluctuating," said Fantine's voice, sounding more weary than usual. "I won't bother trying to explain what that means... it's not important right now. My apologies if I worried you, Tigers."

"We're just glad that you're all right," said Saturn. "You know where the origin point of the tower was?"

"It's… a little difficult for me to see." Her admission had a touch of ruefulness to it. "Both because of my fluctuating and the temporo-spatial damage to the area that prevents us from scanning it. The Stranger was my eyes and ears in there, and she says that the epicenter was in a small parking lot, a few blocks away from the Tsukinos' residence. Still much too close for comfort, but the house escaped the area of effect, just barely."

Madoka looked up at the others and made a very Sakura-like expression. One almost expected a "Hoeee~!" from her. "A… parking lot? That's it? What does a parking lot have to do with anything?"

Something about that didn't sit right with Chibi-Usa. There was something significant about it, something she should know, but it refused to be recalled.

"Oh, I think I might know…" The next voice to speak over the comm was a good deal more testy than usual. "I doubt I could forget that place if I tried," said Luna, building to a feline growl. "Unless I miss my guess, that's the same lot where those horrible brats grabbed me and stuck Band-Aids on my forehead. I wasn't able to do much more than scratch and bite them, but I hope I put all of the little monsters in the hospital. Wait..."

The puzzle piece fell into place, and Chibi-Usa's mind shifted into high gear. "Which means that's the same place where Usagi first found you…!"

"Tigers, this is Lyrical." Now Nanoha Takamachi's voice came through, with an uncharacteristic tremor to it. "I'm pretty sure Fieldmouse Pudding's theory is correct, because the Tower of Geddon in Uminari appeared in the same park where I met Yuuno-kun for the first time… I thought it had to be a coincidence, but this is too much to ignore."

Already Sakura was on board their train of thought. She swallowed heavily and spoke into her glove. "C-can you tell me… i-is there another one in my world, where—"

Only a second or two later, Fantine was back. "Yes, there's another on the former site of Tomoeda in Vertex Two, it sprung up while you four were inside the Labyrinth. At first I thought it must have been a delayed result of whatever the Time Reaper did to the city, but now I see… its epicenter should be directly where your house used to be, Sakura. Or more specifically…"

"Our basement, in Dad's library." Sakura shivered. "Where I found the Clow Book."

And now it was Kero's voice. "Hey, yeah, I see it too. They're where each of the Big Five's stories started… or three of them, at least. Sakura's basement, the parking lot near Usagi's house, the park in Uminari..."

Hard and cold, the next one to speak was Nagisa Misumi, Cure Black. "And if our universe wasn't… you know… I guess there would be one at our apartment building on my balcony, and maybe another in Honoka's storage shed. That's where we met Mepple and Mipple."

"And most likely one or more for each Facet, in the places where the fairy and human worlds first interacted." Fantine sounded more weary than ever. "If Miss Akemi hadn't frozen time in Vertex Five, I suspect there would be at least one there, too…"

"We can't dwell on it," Madoka said finally, and a little too quickly. No need to guess what she was thinking. "We've confirmed the safety of the Tsukino family and we've learned something new, that's going to have to be enough for now. All of us need to stay focused and continue the mission."

All the Tigers nodded, and the Echo-Stranger followed suit.

"Right, Luna P," said Chibi-Moon. Her familiar old balloon appeared in a puff of smoke out of her wristband. "You know what to do. Put this one with the others." When she touched the rose and the slip of paper to Luna P's forehead, they melted into sparkles, disappearing into her personal pocketspace. For years now, she had been saving all of Mamoru's roses that she could inside there. It was silly, she knew he had an infinite supply of them that he could summon on command… but for some reason, she didn't like the thought of them wilting and dying when their magic ran out. In pocketspace, they would be preserved forever in an infinite space, always in full bloom.

As she did so, she noticed Sakura staring at Luna P with great interest. "Sakura-chan? Something wrong?"

Sakura's lips curled upward. "I think I just had an idea. How powerful are Luna P's sensors?"

The closest corner to their present location was at Azabu-Juuban Street and Zoushiki Street, the site of the Mamegen General Store, now boarded up and shuttered. Right past that corner, taking up the street from one side to the other, a JSDF security checkpoint slouched at the border of the crystal spires' energy field, walled off with concrete roadblocks and patrolled by glassy-eyed soldiers. One glance at their glazed, blank faces was enough to tell them that whoever these soldiers were taking orders from, it wasn't the higher-ups at the Self-Defense Forces...

Approaching from the checkpoint was cutting it close, probably way too close. However, from that corner it was a little over a hundred meters to the Crown in a straight line. If they managed to make it past there without being noticed, it was home free. For a short while, anyway.

At Madoka's suggestion, the five of them (minus Sakura) dropped their transformations, the better to remain inconspicuous. True, civilians the multiverse over never did seem to be all that observant of the activities of magical girls outside of battle, whether in costume or not, but it was better to be on the safe side when they were within spitting distance of their goal.

Chibi-Usa swallowed and pulled at her collar. All her battles and all those movies where armies patrolled the streets couldn't prepare her for the sight of an actual, real-life tank, a grim and menacing thing squatting less than ten meters from a yakitori restaurant which she and her school friend Momoko had visited enough times to know the proprietors by name. The former belonged in some other, harsher world, light-years apart from the latter. Other than the tank and the concrete roadblocks, there was a compact little guard house setu up there with bulletproof glass windows; a boom barrier with a big, glaring STOP sign attached to the swinging arm, flanked by powerful searchlights; a handful of military ATVs; and at least a dozen soldiers milling around, carrying machine guns. Every few minutes, a tarp-covered ATV would roll up to the checkpoint and stop, and the soldier inside the guard house would peer out the window, nod, and press a button to lift the boom, allowing the vehicle to pass through. Dead End kept them on an efficient schedule, she could give them that… there was a regular flow of them in and out. She wondered if Sakura meant them to jump into the back of one of those things and hide among the supplies…

But no. Sakura waved them forward as another truck passed by, but instead of climbing on board, they darted along in its shadow. When it stopped, she pointed to the narrow gap between a truck parked on the sidewalk and the Mamegen's outer wall. She sucked in a breath and went for it, following behind Sakura as she crept right up to one of the roadblocks and peeked over it.

That breath wouldn't come out any time soon. From this position, they could not only see inside the guard house, they could actually hear the breathing of the soldier manning it. The image of the soldier sitting there dead-eyed while lights from the guard house's monitors danced over his face, just sitting there instead of reading a book or checking his phone or doing any of the hundreds of little human things that people do when stuck with a boring job like his… that image would linger in Chibi-Usa's nightmares for a while, she thought.

Sakura tapped Madoka on the shoulder, then tapped her temple.

Okay, said Madoka in their minds, via telepathy. We're as close as we can get. What's the plan?

The Stranger, now changed from Cure Echo back to the shape of Ayumi Sakagami, listened intently to their every word.

This is where Luna P comes in. Sakura flushed. I-I guess Diana P could do it too, but anyway. Chibi-Usa-chan, if you send it flying really high up, about fifty meters or more… can Luna P show us what's on the rooftops above us?

Chibi-Usa nodded and tapped her wristband. Once more restored to its true shape, Luna P bobbled before her, awaiting instructions. Yeah, it should be able to handle that. Its systems are linked to Diana P's, so the cameras in its eyes can show us what it sees from down here, like a surveillance drone…

Good! said Sakura. Send it up there and have it hover.

It took but a touch and a few whispered words to send Luna P on its way… but slowly, so as not to attract any attention. Any soldier that happened to see it would think it was an ordinary balloon cut loose, she hoped. The holo-altimeter projected from Diana P's eyes ticked up higher and higher. At fifty-five meters above street level, it stopped, and the altimeter changed into a screen, a bird's-eye view of the street.

Just as I thought, said Sakura, pointing at the image of the building they crouched in front of. Look, on the roof.

Willpower was the only thing that kept Chibi-Usa from groaning. Great. They're up there, too. Are those snipers?!

Probably, said Hotaru with a mental sigh. Just our luck.

That's not all, said Madoka. I think I understand what Sakura-chan is getting at. There's a guard house up there too, right? They must think we might try to attack from the air.

Yeah, said Sakura, but if I'm right… all the guard houses they have around the edge of the field are linked together, whether they're in the street or up on the roofs. And all of them have to have power, right? It's one big circuit.

Hotaru nodded. That would make sense, but how do you know so much about wiring, Sakura-chan?

At that, Sakura's eyes misted over a bit. My best friend Tomoyo is an expert with cameras and other electronic stuff. She designs and builds them herself, and you can't be around her for as long as I have without picking a few things up.

Sakura-chan… Hotaru moved to touch her shoulder.

I'm all right. An intake of breath stopped her tears before they could start. We're going to get Tomoyo-chan back, her and all the rest. That's what we're doing this for. She turned her gaze back to Chibi-Usa. Okay, Chibi-Usa-chan, here's the big question: can Luna P's sensors give us both an X-ray view and a map of electrical activity at the same time?

Geez, she really had some brain. Chibi-Usa grinned, beginning to get the idea. It's got 30th Century technology, we've got scanners for that stuff in baby monitors. No problem at all. Through Diana P's interface, she made a few adjustments…

Baby monitors?! Somehow she heard the horrible face Madoka was making without seeing it. Is… is it really a good idea to make those with x-rays? I'm not so sure I like the sound of the future...
Chibi-Usa blinked. Really? Why? One more adjustment did it. On the holo screen, the shadowed shape of the guard house now sat atop a dense pattern of glowing lines interspersed with bright, burning orbs. Distinguishing the network of the guardhouse from that of the building that it sat on was difficult; Chibi-Usa zoomed in little by little until—

The Ayumi-Stranger pointed eagerly. One particularly fat line started at the guard house, snaked across the roof, and made a sharp downward turn at the edge.

There, said Hotaru. That must be the main power line. Well done, Stranger-san, thank you.

Okay! Sakura clutched her key. We're almost done. Chibi-Usa-chan, bring Luna P back down to us, and have it stay on that line. We want to see where it connects to the guard house down here.

She did; with the wire pinpointed, it was easy to track. When Luna P had the house in its sights, they found that it ran directly into one of the brightest, densest orbs…

There it is, the breaker! Triumph colored Sakura's thoughts, and the rest of them couldn't help smiling too. No matter how advanced an electrical network is, it still gets messed up if someone or something breaks the circuit. We won't have long, but it should cause enough of a distraction to get us in unnoticed.

Brilliant, said Hotaru. So is one of us going in there to trip it? Or are we hacking it from out here?

Neither. There was already a Card in Sakura's hand. This one is an expert at causing mischief without being noticed. She whispered a tiny "Release!" to her key, transforming it into the Sealing Wand, and tapped the Card's face with its beak. "Shut off the power for us! MOVE!"

Once it materialized, Chibi-Usa's immediate thought was that MOVE didn't look like much; just a bejeweled triangular pendulum, suspended by strings from a pair of those same white, fluffy wings that had to be a signature of Sakura's magic, judging by how often they appeared on her various Cards. The MOVE faded out, then reappeared on Diana P's screen as a ghostly green shadow of itself, hovering before the breaker box. Maybe it didn't look like much, but it sure pulled through where it counted: the main breaker's pole switch moved by itself from up to down, and the glow from both the guard house's screens and the searchlights surrounding the boom barrier cut off instantly.

Chibi-Usa braced herself for panic and frenzied movement. Whether they thought it was a fluke or deliberate sabotage, everything she knew about trained soldiers said that they would spring into action right away, barking orders at each other until the problem was fixed. No such flurry happened… the brainwashed soldiers continued going through the motions of their routine without any interruption. The one inside the guardhouse kept on staring mindlessly at the rows of darkened screens, only stirring when another truck came along to be inspected. He stared without seeing at the ID of the truck driver as it was offered, then pushed the button to raise the boom arm. When the arm stayed in place, he simply pushed it again, and again, and again…

Pushing down the wave of revulsion that threatened to overwhelm her at the sight, Chibi-Usa followed the others as they slipped over the roadblock. These soldiers, and all the other people that Dead End enslaved or tortured or killed… for their sake, tonight's mission couldn't fail.

Finally, it was within reach. Having transformed again to reach higher ground, they looked down from the northwest corner of the roof of the massive Grand Maison shopping center, just across the street from what was left of the Crown. Inside the detection field, Dead End's less humanoid troops moved around freely, taking over the bulk of the work from the brainwashed JSDF soldiers. They were all grateful that the soldiers were only needed to maintain an air of legitimacy around the perimeter and keep inquisitive citizens out; fighting monsters was one thing, fighting human military forces quite another.

Saturn's feelings as she stared down at the burned-out shell of the Crown were mixed. The goal was closer than ever, but some streak of inner cynicism warned her that it couldn't possibly be this easy. Already this night had required sacrifice, and the weight of Messiah's charm against her chest served as a constant reminder of that. Of course she told Chibi-Moon what using Messiah required of her, there were no secrets there… it was the first thing they discussed after the Device was finished. However, she suspected that even with total understanding between them about the consequences, Chibi-Moon wouldn't take the news well that a year of her life was already forfeit. Apart from all the other moral implications, that meant that there was one less chance to put an end to Joker.

One charge had been expended to save Chibi-Moon's life. Saturn had no regrets about that… as she said to the others in the Labyrinth, she would do it again without hesitation. It was an emergency, there was no other option. That was what Messiah was designed for.

If all went well tonight, Joker himself would be appearing here in Azabu-Juuban, but she knew better than to think she would have a shot at him without carving through his hordes first. They would fight tooth and nail to the last to protect him, with all the savagery that they possessed. And there was the rub: by the time she got to Joker to deliver the death sentence, how many more charges would Messiah have left, if any? How many more years would be gone?

Next to her, Chibi-Moon slid an arm around her waist. They didn't need telepathy to sense when each other were troubled… Saturn smiled at her and was pleased to see her smile in return.

"Almost ready for showtime," said Chibi-Moon to the others. "Ready to bring the noise and the fireworks, girls?"

The Stranger, back in her Cure Echo form, made a blooming motion with her hands and mouthed a sound, rather than a word: Boom!

"Yup," said Madoka, "that's right, boom. Once we're a little more certain of who we're dealing with, we'll be good to go."

Sakura peered at the holo-screen projected from Diana P, now showing Luna P's footage of the street as it hovered overhead. "There's lots of monsters coming in and out of the Crown's building," she said. "It's still under heavy guard. Are those big ones with the sunglasses Zetsuborgs or Kowainaa? I can never remember which ones are which."

"Neither," said Fantine through the comms. "Those are Saiarks."


"Still no sign of who's in charge, though," said Madoka. "They're using a little from every faction, so I can't make a guess."

"At least it doesn't look like they're trying to rebuild or salvage the command center or anything." Chibi-Moon blanched. "The thought of those things pawing around in there, trying to learn our secrets? Ugh."

"It looks as if Uranus didn't leave much that could be reused." Melancholy crept into Saturn's voice. "She was… thorough. She always is."

"We'll find her, Saturn. We'll get her back."

"Someone or something is coming out," said Sakura. She squinted and peered closer at the holo. "It's not a Precure monster, it's too small… they look human. A woman, I think. I see red hair, and—"

Saturn's heart plunged deep into the pit of her stomach. In that instant, as the shadows broke over the image of the red-haired woman's face, she knew. She knew exactly who was in command here, and who she would be seeing tonight… trying to deny it was as fruitless as trying to stop the ocean's tide with her bare hands.

A warm hand took hold of hers and squeezed. "Saturn?" said Chibi-Moon. "Are you gonna be all right?"

"Yes," said Saturn, and she meant it. In some ways, this confrontation was inevitable, and long overdue. "As long as we stay together, I can handle anything. Even them."

"I don't recognize her," said Madoka. "Who are we dealing with?"

Saturn told them… and she made sure they understood.

"Well," said Madoka when she was done, visibly shaken. "That's that, I suppose. We know what we need to know, there's nothing else to do but dive right in and make sure they see us."

Looking faintly queasy, Sakura nodded. "I don't think that'll be a problem... Should I get set from down below at the Maison's entrance, or what?"

Madoka's Device projected a holo of its own, a map of the block. "Here would be better, I think," she said, pointing to a spot. "The intersection of Patio and Azabu-dori. The main streets are too narrow, we don't want any more collateral damage than necessary. Everybody else..." Madoka looked at Chibi-Moon, Saturn, and the Echo-Stranger in turn. "Let's make a scene." Into her Device, she spoke the words that both excited and terrified them all: "Musain, this is Swan with Strike Team Tiger… and one extra. We're in place and ready to commence Operation McGinnis."

"It seems pointless, if you ask me," Mimete whined, kicking at a piece of rubble with the tip of her shoe. "This place is totaled, why would they want to come back here?"

Eudial rolled her eyes as she emerged from what used to be the entrance of the Game Center Crown. "Because our superiors think they will. I don't like it any more than you do, I'd rather be back in the lab designing new weapons, but this is our job and we've got to do it." Shooting a glare back over her shoulder, she raised her eyebrows. "Unless you'd like to tell the Magi that standing guard is too boring for you?"

Whining escalated into a squealing. "You can't talk to me like that, your rank level's not that much higher than mine!" said Mimete, stamping her foot so hard she nearly broke a heel. "Besides, in the one timeline, I was the one who killed you, so I should be your superior!"

Even for Mimete, that was a low blow, but Eudial refused to give her the satisfaction of scoring a point. With great difficulty, she kept her expression condescending.

Back in the shadows of the ruined arcade, Tellu let out a dreamy giggle. Her hand moved to caress the flower that she had been cultivating for over a month now… the flower that gave Eudial the creeps more than any of her other flowers, which were creepy enough. "They'll be here," she said in singsong. "I can feel it. It's only a matter of time before my precious baby and I can feast on their energy~."

"Seriously, Tellu, I think that thing's going to your head," said Eudial, trying hard not to blanch. "You should get rid of it already, you're making us look bad."

The response was an almost animal-like hiss as Tellu cradled the flower in her arms, shielding it from them with herself.

In frustration, Mimete summoned her staff and pointed it. "Charm Buster!" she intoned, blasting a perfectly harmless piece of steel I-beam into ash. "I hate this, I really hate this! I should be up on stage gathering Hostes or Pure Hearts, not reduced to playing guard dog for a worthless scrap heap! I don't care what the Magi say, things were better when we still had Vil—"

For one of the only times in their careers, Eudial and Tellu both agreed on something. As one, they snapped at Mimete: "Don't you dare mention that name!"

Mimete being Mimete, she shrieked and curled into an almost fetal ball, hiding behind her staff. "Uwaaah! I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I'm just frustrated, we haven't even gotten to fight since—"

The light show cut off whatever grievance Mimete was about to air. From the top of the huge, multi-story shopping mall across the street, an enormous pillar of light erupted like a geyser, sparkling pink and pastel green swirled together in a helix. "What—" Eudial began, but as the geyser's peak reached within ten meters of the cloud ceiling overhead, it burst… and she saw very well what, and she clenched her teeth so hard that they should have cracked.

There was now a huge, holographic Morning Lights emblem projected on the clouds, shining down red and white and black, big enough for the whole block, or maybe half of Azabu-Juuban to see. Aside from the Senshi, Eudial had never personally encountered the little brats before, but she knew that emblem from the footage recovered from the disaster in Uminari. Its radiance illuminated four shapes perched on the edge of the roof, and the first thought that came to mind was: There, Mimete, are you happy now, you idiot?!

She only knew one of them personally, and had battled against the other often enough. The latter was the little pink Senshi brat, now grown up quite a bit, imitating the signature motions of the other Sailor Moon as she called out in a magically-projected voice: "Hold it! The youth of today are more stressed-out than ever, and by denying them their arcades, you're denying them their hard-earned relaxation! Such a heinous act will result in lower test scores and narrower job pools for the next generation of Japanese people, and I won't stand for it! For love and justice…" she called out, sweeping her arms in wide motions, "the pretty Senshi in a sailor suit! I am Sailor Chibi-Moon!"

Next was the pale, black-haired girl whom Eudial and her comrades once served, in other lifetimes… now a traitor to their cause, and more dangerous than ever. Brandishing a wicked scythe-like weapon that gleamed in the holographic light from above, she spoke softer and with less bombast: "The Senshi of ruin and birth, with the blessings of my star, Saturn… I am Sailor Saturn."

After them, another pink one, this one with a bow and fiery pink arrows. This one Eudial had only seen in pictures: "Puella Magi, Madoka Kaname!"

The fourth, the one in white and pastel colors, didn't speak. Instead, she spun in place and wrote with strokes of lime green light from her fingertip. When finished, the katakana she inscribed in the air read: Cure Echo.

The voices of the three speakers chorusing together filled the street from one end to the other: "We are the Morning Lights!"

"And in the name of the future moon…" Chibi-Moon shouted, pointing right at Eudial, "we shall punish you!"

Before Eudial could even move to draw her weapons from pocketspace, two tongues of fire burst to life at street level, one red and one blue. Seeing them lifted her spirits, just a little… now they were getting somewhere.

Out of the flames stepped the last two of the Death Busters' reformed Witches 5, mirrors of each other in different colors: Magus Cyprine and Magus Ptilol, already bringing their staffs to bear on the intruders in perfect unison.

"My my," purred Ptilol, the twin wearing red. "Look at this… the tiny moon brat, the professor's runaway daughter, and the Goddess, all in one place. Aren't they daring, Cyprine?"

"Oh, they are," said Cyprine, all in blue. "Master Joker will love to hear this, Ptilol. Three highest-priority targets all delivering themselves right to us…"

Somehow, Chibi-Moon heard them from up there. "That's where you're wrong!" she yelled down. "It's not just us here! You're gonna wish you'd never been reborn, because we've brought our secret weapon… Now, Sakura-chan!"

Nothing seemed to happen at first, but then… a shadow, an incredibly big shadow which grew larger by the second, swept over Eudial and the other Witches from the southeast. That shadow blanketed the entire eleventh block and a portion of the first block, just south of it. With the emblem's light shining down from above, it was at first difficult to tell exactly what the thing casting it was, other than that it was enormous. It grew and grew and grew, actually tearing through the cloud cover and dwarfing even the height of the Dark Crystal spires that loomed over the district.

When Eudial realized what, or rather, who the enormous being was, she could hesitate no longer. "Eudial to Unlovely!" she barked into her comm. "We have a problem, a really, really big problem…!"

Were it not for her size, the one-hundred-fifty-meter tall behemoth wouldn't have awed many. Rather than trying to look intimidating, there was clear discomfort and embarrassment written all over her massive, cherry-red face as she clutched the Sealing Wand and the BIG Card tightly to her chest in a protective gesture… but after swallowing a few times, the now kaiju-sized Sakura Kinomoto spoke. With her lungs now many times their normal size, even her soft and trembling voice came out as a thunderous boom. "Um!" she stammered, sending tremors through the streets far below. "A-attention, citizens of Azabu-Juuban! We are the Morning Lights, and we have a message for you from Sailor Moon… I-I'm Cardcaptor Sakura, and I don't r-really have a speech or anything like she does but… I'm here, I guess!" She held out the Sealing Wand in a shaky attempt at a dynamic pose, throwing half of the block beneath it into darkness. "I know you're all scared of Dead End, b-but… but I have things I need to tell you about them, things they don't want you to hear…!"




[Author's note:

Hahahah, I did it! Two chapter updates within a month of each other! I know this one's shorter than usual, but this seemed like the best place to break and rest up for what's ahead. There's good stuff coming. :D

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