Echoes of a Distant Demon
by Sailor Doc
Mars and Jupiter slowed to a surprised stop as they approached the main entryway to the Royal Martian palace. A company of the Royal Guards stood between them and the entrance to Rei's childhood home and their drawn weapons illustrated clearly that they meant business.
Rei had expected tightened security at the Palace since the latest attack on her family, but this was not expected. She could easily feel the tension as Makoto stiffened at her side, and she didn't need to turn to see the fearsome scowl and set jaw she knew would preface an explosion from her powerful friend. They had just left Jupiter's ravaged surface after a particularly vicious conflict, and while they had won the battle, they were in no mood to be challenged now by what were suppose to be friendly forces.
"What is the meaning of this?" Rei inquired, her hand automatically reaching out to block the forward surge of her volatile teammate.
"Since the bombing on the Central Mall yesterday no one is to be admitted into the Royal Palace, on pain of death," the Captain of the Guard replied, though it was obvious he was uncomfortable with this stance.
"On whose authority?" Rei demanded, her own temper starting to flare.
"By order of His Royal Highness, Prince Rahn," the Captain replied nervously.
"Rahn?" Rei asked in surprise. "Really?"
"Yes, your highness," the man answered as he raised his chin and straightened his back. "No one is to be admitted without his express permission."
"That tears it!" Makoto said. As the opposing soldiers watched in horror, Sailor Jupiter took a firm step forward, an intense ball of electrical power surging to life between the palms of her hands. "Sparkling Wide…"
"Jupiter, wait!" Mars commanded. Turning her back to the entryway she placed both hands on her subordinate's shoulders and caught her eyes. "Let me handle this. It will be okay. I promise."
Jupiter's eyes sparkled with barely contained energy as she glared at the soldiers shaking in obvious fear before her. Finally her eyes met Mars' calm, yet determined expression and she began to slightly relax her pose. "They have one minute to reverse their stance," she stated clearly so that all the assembled soldiers could hear and understand her, "and then walls start coming down."
Mars nodded in agreement, and then turned to study the now very pale face of the guard captain. "You do know who we are, don't you?" she asked calmly.
"Yes, your Highness," the man said hoarsely after a clearly audible swallow.
"That would be 'Your Royal'Highness', now, wouldn't it?" Rei asked mildly as she studied the young officer with a clearly critical eye.
"Y-ye-yes, of course, Your Royal Highness!" he sputtered in intense embarrassment.
"And so, you know exactly who it is we represent," she continued.
The man immediately dropped to his knees, his soldiers quickly following suit. "Of course, Your Royal Highness!" he replied, his head bowed in respect.
"Am I to believe then, that two representatives of Her Imperial Majesty, High Queen Serenity, are to be denied entrance into this palace?"
"N-n-n-o-o!" the hapless man stammered.
"Not to mention the simple facts that one, I am the daughter of this house. Two, I am now the heir apparent to the throne, and three, I am the LIVING AVATAR OF GREAT MARS HIMSELF!"
"No! No, of course not, Your Royal Highness!" the man scrambled to explain. "I'm absolutely positive your brother would never deny you…"
"Deny me what?" she demanded, her anger finally starting to boil over. "Entrance into my own home? A chance to see my older brother before he may very well die? The opportunity to comfort my mother when she needs me most?"
A deadly silence followed her last words until she finally spoke again, her voice once again back to its normal level and tone.
"No? I didn't think so."
Without another word she moved boldly toward the threshold. The soldiers, heads bowed in shame, moving silently out of the way as her Jovian friend followed firmly at her side.
The first thing Rei noticed when she entered the palace was the overwhelming hush. There was no music. No sound of lively conversation. No snap and crackle of a fire's warmth. All was dark and still, with only a few torches lit to provide the very minimum of light. The second thing that caught her attention was the lack of courtiers and staff. She saw none of the usual plethora of officials and their families, or the large number of staff that saw to their needs. All she saw was a handful of servants who all appeared ill kept and nervous at anyone's approach.
Something was undoubtedly wrong here.
But all thoughts of any nature fled her mind as she entered Rafe's bedchamber. What she saw there would haunt her for the rest of her days.
In the dim torch light she could see Rafe's battered form resting under the covers of the bed he had shared with Grace. Rei could hear the obvious rattle in his chest as he struggled to draw each breath and knew that his time was short. Their Mother sat by his side, his right hand held in both of hers, and Rei's eyes began to water when she saw Grace's forging band on his right ring finger, their mother softly caressing both the ring and his still fingers as tears ran unchecked down her cheeks. Raimus, the elderly high priest who had performed her forging ceremony with Minako, stood at Rafe's feet, a small brazier in his hands as he stoically performed the solemn rites of ascension in his deep, resonant voice, its slight tremor the only outward indication of his personal distress. On the opposite side of the bed stood Rahn. In full battle gear and armed to the teeth, his anger radiated out from him in seething waves, physically visible in his grinding jaw and the fist that continually gripped and flexed around the hilt of his broadsword.
Rei started when Makoto softly touched her arm, lifting heartsick eyes to the compassionate gaze of her friend and teammate.
"I'm not needed there. You are. I'll stand watch here as long as it takes. Go on," she encouraged, with a sad smile. "I'll be right here whenever you need me."
With inexpressible gratitude, Rei squeezed Makoto's arm, and then moved slowly into the quiet room. Her mother was the first to see her approach and she convulsively reached out for her as she called her name. "Rei!"
Rei moved forward quickly, taking her mother's hand in one of her own and engulfing her in a warm hug. "I came as quickly as I could," she told her as she tightened her hold, mother and daughter clinging desperately to each other in their unspeakable grief.
"I know you did, dear," her mother soothed as she gently rubbed Rei's tense back. "I know."
"But not quite fast enough," Rahn spat, his dark eyes lancing into Rei with undisguised loathing.
"Rahn!" his mother chastised.
"If she had been here instead of off serving the Moon Kingdom she may have been able to stop this mess!" he seethed.
"Need I remind you again that we are part of the Moon Kingdom she serves?" his mother said, her voice firm despite the ravaging of her tears. "It is her duty to serve as Queen Serenity sees fit."
"Then, damn Serenity!" Rahn roared, not seeing the javelin materialize in Jupiter's fist, or his sister motion for her teammate to stay her hand. "Tell that to Rafe! Hell, tell that to Gracie and her murdered sons! Yes, you heard me correctly! I said sons!" he repeated at the look of horror that spread across Rei's face. "I bet you didn't know that she was pregnant again, did you big sis? They were thrilled that there would be another boy that they could name for father. So why don't you just explain to them where Serenity and her all-powerful Sailor Senshi were while they were bleeding to death in a Martian street!"
"Rahn! That's enough," his mother began, fresh tears streaming down her cheeks as she attempted to calm him down.
"No, Mother," he said, his voice softening as he addressed her with love and respect. "I'm done with it. Somebody has to restore order on this planet, and I guess that falls to me." His eyes looked up at his sister in rebuke. "I'm guessing you won't be hanging around to do it yourself?" he asked in mocking question.
"No, I'm afraid not," Rei answered in deep regret. "Venus has ordered us…"
"Yes, I'm sure your forgemate has more important things for you to do," he snarled. "Well, to hell's fire with you both! I have my own duties to carry out."
Striding toward the door, nobody seemed to notice how the servants scampered to get out of his reach. Heartsick, Rei was instead taken by his still barely discernible limp - a constant reminder of the horrific explosion that had taken their father and almost Rahn himself from them. He continued to move purposefully toward the threshold until he reached Makoto, and then he stopped.
Jupiter stood there, her anger barely held in check as they eyed each other.
"Tell me," Rahn began, turning only his head to look back at his sister. "How did you two get in here anyway? I gave specific orders denying entry into this palace to anyone."
"We aren't just anyone," Jupiter stated firmly. "Your orders may be important to the people of this planet, but they mean less than nothing to me or any other official representative of the Moon Kingdom."
Anger flashed violently across the face of the young prince and Rei could clearly see the rage in his clenched jaw and trembling hands as he looked up into the unimpressed eyes of the Soldier of Strength and Courage. Then, with uncharacteristic restraint he lowered his eyes and took a single step back. Looking back up at Jupiter from under his lashes, he gave a derisive snort, then turned and strolled away, leaving an uneasy silence in his wake.
Rei's mother was the one who finally broke that silence. "I'm sorry girls. I'm afraid he's not handling any of this very well at all."
"Who of us really is?" Rei asked sadly. "And he didn't say anything I haven't already thought myself."
"You can't beat yourself up about this, darling," her mother said as she pulled Rei down to sit beside her and Rafe. "He has no concept of the big picture and can't began to see it as Serenity and Venus can. To be quite honest, I'm very worried about him."
"Why mother?" Rei asked, surprised.
"He's not really been… himself for quite some time now," she responded softly.
"What do you mean?" Rei questioned, a frown furrowing her brow in concern.
"I feel he's somehow lost himself. That carefree, easy going, happy-go-lucky streak we all loved and cherished? It's totally gone now," her mother replied sadly.
"Well, to be honest Mother, what has there been to be happy about of late? In a very short span of time we have lost Father, then Richard, and now Gracie and Raymond," her voice broke and tears welled up in her own eyes. "Now Rafe is fighting for his life." Clenching her jaw, Rei wrestled her raw emotions back in line before continuing. "The planet is in turmoil, the people are in mortal fear for their lives, and the fire shows me only more chaos and confusion."
The Queen exchanged a concerned look with the old priest.
"What do you mean by chaos and confusion, child?" Raimus asked gently. "Is it in the provinces? The metropolitan areas?"
Rei took a deep breath and her weary eyes closed in pain and confusion. "That's just it," she confessed. "It's not just in one place or even two! If it were, I could trace it and follow it to it's points of power. That way we could isolate it and address each issue as is most appropriate for it."
"So what seems to be the problem, your highness?" Raimus asked. "Has the rebellion truly spread that far?"
Rei frowned. "I get no sense of any 'rebellion' at all. Absolutely none. No revolt. No discord among our people."
"Nothing at all?" the Queen asked in disbelief.
Rei shook her head and looked at old Raimus. "Only a deep, internal fear, a sense of disbelief and, well…" she paused, her voice trailing off.
"And what dear?" her Mother asked.
Rei looked up, her expression heartsick as she searched for the proper word.
"Betrayal," Raimus supplied.
The Queen looked up, sharply. "Betrayal?" she asked.
Rei watched the old priest who looked at her with knowing eyes.
"Yes. Betrayal," she confirmed. "But, I don't know from where it comes. I do, however, get a strong sense of the Dark Kingdom's particular brand of evil in every aspect of this, and yet it seems as if I'm missing something. Like there's a whole, much deeper layer to this that I'm just not seeing yet. The fire is strangely silent after that." Looking up at Raimus, she was not surprised to see him nod his head in agreement.
"I've noticed it as well, your Majesty," he said to the Queen. "Its almost as if there were some sort of blockage. It's unheard of in all of our chronicles, and that is seriously… troubling."
A stillness fell over the somber group with only the sound of Rafe's labored breathing to break its oppressive silence until Rowena cleared her throat and turned to her daughter. "How is your Minako?" she asked with a sad smile, her hand loosely playing with her son's still fingers.
"Wonderful. Amazing," Rei quickly answered. But, as her mother raised an eyebrow at her she elaborated a bit more. "Tired. Exhausted. Stressed. Worried."
"Things aren't good out there right now, are they?" her mother asked, and Rei grimaced.
"No, I'm afraid not. It seems the whole system is in chaos and each planet is finding a way to tear itself apart," she added.
"All of them?" Rowena asked.
"With the exceptions of Saturn and Pluto, yes," Rei responded. "But they've been technically dead for years. Mercury is in the grip of at least twelve pandemic outbreaks. As their scientists scramble to find a cure for one, three more break out in a different sector. Venus has never really been the most stable of planets to begin with, but there has been an outrageous increase in volcanic activity. Unless they can find a way to halt it, or at least slow it down, the planet will start to consume itself. Much the same can be said about Jupiter, except their destruction will come from the unrelenting violence of weather systems gone horribly wild."
"But I thought the Jovians were accustomed to the most inclement of weather conditions," the Queen exclaimed, turning to look at the other young woman still standing at the door.
"That's true, your Majesty," Makoto answered respectfully. "But even we have never had to endure either the violence or the longevity that we are currently having to deal with. The flooding and the wind damage alone are wiping out entire towns and villages, sometimes several in just a single day."
"Great Mars," the Queen whispered. "Are the rumors about Neptune and Uranus true, dear?"
Rei nodded sadly. "I'm afraid so, mother. For no clear reason we've been able to determine, they have declared war on each other, and nothing we do has been able to make them stop."
"The citizens?" her mother asked, in concern.
Rei shook her head. "There is no quarter given, and none asked for. They are dying by the thousands every day, and at this rate will annihilate each other within three months."
"Princesses Haruka and Michiru?" Rowena asked sadly. She had very fond memories of the two young girls she'd met so long ago.
"Their families forced them to make a choice: 'Return home and lend us your powers to destroy our enemies, or never return.'
"Rei, no!" her mother cried. "That's so incredibly cruel!"
"They will never be able to go home again," Rei confirmed. "Queen Serenity mercifully posted them to guard the outer rim. At least they will be able to be together for awhile, and honestly the last thing we need is an attack from forces outside our own solar system. Currently we can't even seem to stop the evil we're dealing with from within it."
Queen Rowena reached out, her warm hand coming to rest on Rei's bruised and worn fingers. Only then did she truly see the battered and bloody uniform and the weariness etched into every line of her daughter's face. A quick look at the Jovian showed the same thing: an exhausted warrior, fresh from the battlefield, who was functioning on sheer willpower and grit alone. Concerned, she closed her fingers around Rei's hand and could feel the slight tremor that signaled both her physical and mental exhaustion.
"How long has it been since you left the moon?" her mother asked with no small amount of concern.
Rei cleared her throat, but her voice was still barely audible. "Um, about, uh...four months?"
"Four months?" Rowena exclaimed in disbelief. "Rei!"
"I know, mother! I know!" Rei said, cutting her mother off before she could begin. "I can't begin to tell you how much I hate this!"
"Will you at least be able to stay the night?" the Queen asked softly. When Rei's dark eyes refused to meet her own, looking instead at their joined hands, her mother spoke again. "Rei!" she began to chastised. But before she could begin her motherly tirade of concern, the air in the center of the room began to shimmer and pop. Suddenly, the holographic image of Sailorvenus appeared before them, her visage serious and her manner urgent.
"Mars. Jupiter. I need you both to leave immediately! Go directly to Phobos. Mercury's sensors have detected a major spike in negative energy there within the last ten minutes and our sources confirm the appearance of a massive army of youma. Do whatever you must to destroy this latest threat to both Mars and the Moon, and then report directly back to me. Are there any questions?"
"No!" Mars and Jupiter responded.
"Good! I'm truly sorry about this," she confessed, her regret clearly evident. "I know how tired you are, and I really just want you both to come home." Her eyes included both of her soldiers, but lingered on her forgemate, her message to the Martian clear. 'I miss you so much. I need you, and I want you home."
"We'll be okay," Mars assured their commander.
Taking Rei's lead, Makoto straightened to her full height and squared her shoulders, a confident grin on her face. "We know we're your 'shock troops'. They'll never know what hit them and we'll be back there before you know it."
Venus smiled. "That's pretty much the plan," she agreed. "Your job is to make sure that happens! Now, as for the situation on Mars…"
"I'll fill you in on that later," Mars said abruptly, cutting her forgemate off with a meaningful look. Minako looked at her in silence and saw the ever so slight negative shake of her head that begged her to ask no more.
Not right now.
Closing her eyes, Venus nodded her head. "Very well. Please give my love to your mother, and pass along my regret for being unable to be there personally."
Rei watched as Minako's thumb began to play nervously with her forging band, the only outward sign of her personal distress.
"Of course, my love," the Martian gently promised.
A look of pain passed over the Venusian's features, and Rei allowed her own thumb to caress the inside of her matching band, unconsciously searching for a way to comfort Minako with just this small connection to her.
Venus visibly relaxed, the tiny line of tension easing off around her eyes and lips, a slight, sad smile playing at the corner of her mouth just before Mercury appeared quickly at her side. With just a few whispered words from the strategist, Venus' whole demeanor changed as she directed her troops.
"Go now! Quickly! They have shifted into an aggressive attack position. You have no time to lose!"
Mars and Jupiter nodded in understanding and Venus cut communication, a clear indication that she expected her orders to be carried out immediately.
Mars turned quickly to her mother, regret and remorse etched in her features. "I'm so sorry mother! But, if Makoto and I don't leave for our moon quickly, Phobos may be overwhelmed. That would give the Dark Kingdom's forces a strategic foothold in Martian territory, and I can't let that happen!"
Without hesitation the Queen pulled her into a fierce hug which Rei returned, unable to stop the flow of tears that suddenly began to fall unbidden from eyes the color of violets.
"No time for all that now, Reibikins," her mother chastised gently, even as she squeezed her only daughter even more tightly. "We all have our jobs to do. We're all depending on you to do yours now. Rest assured," she promised softly. "I'll be doing mine."
As Rei released her mother and stepped away, her eyes were drawn once more to the still figure laying in the shadowed bed just over the Queens' shoulder, and she understood. Her stubborn brother was still refusing to answer death's insistent call, and their mother would help him fight it every wretched step of the way.
He was, after all, a Martian.
Rei nodded in understanding, and her mother smiled. "Go now! Great Mars be with you both."
With one final look, Rei turned, and with Makoto at her side, hurried out the door and turned for the main hall and the exit that would take them out into the courtyard. Lost as she was in her own thoughts, she followed along behind her colleague, trusting in Jupiter to lead the way. She barely even noticed when her friend's footsteps slowed, so when they stopped all together she looked up at Makoto in startled surprise to see the thunder senshi looking toward the open courtyard before the main gate in mute horror. Rei looked quickly in that direction as well and instantly felt her stomach clench and her blood run cold.
There, scattered among the cherry trees, were the remains of the company of guards that had been stationed at the front gate when they had arrived that afternoon. The carnage was so violent and bloody that what could be seen of their uniforms was hardly recognizable. Another group of obviously shaken soldiers moved amongst the carnage, trying to collect the remains of their comrades and clean up the horrible mess left in the wake of what had obviously been a vicious and merciless attack at the main gate.
"Merciful Mother Goddess," Jupiter whispered. "What in bloody hell just happened here?"
Stunned into silence, Mars could only shake her head in disbelief before murmuring, "I have no idea. None whatsoever."
Frozen in place by the scene before them, neither senshi heard the footsteps coming up behind them, and were startled by the quiet voice when it began to speak.
"Quite shocking, isn't it?" Rahn asked, resting a gentle hand on his sister's' shoulder. "But this is what life on Mars has started to become."
Rei shook her head in silent denial.
"No, it's true, sis," Rahn continued softly. "Rafe and Mother have tried to hide the truth from you. They didn't want you to worry," he said with a gentle squeeze of his hand. "At first it wasn't much of a problem, but then just after Father was killed these 'incidents' started to happen more frequently and with increasing violence. So far, no one has been able to discover where the attacks come from, and who is behind them."
"The Dark Kingdom," Rei said, her voice a dry rasp as she said the dreaded name through the tightness in her throat.
"No doubt," her brother agreed. "But who is their agent here on Mars? I assure you, we have vigorously pursued every possible lead, gone down every path, and searched under every stone. Despite our best efforts he continues to elude us."
"You've consulted with the temple?" Rei asked, her eyes still watching the soldiers at their grisly task.
"Of course," Rahn assured her. "They have been able to find absolutely nothing!" He shook his head in frustration. "There can be no doubt that, whoever he is, he must be very, very good," the young general concluded.
"Or a total psychopath," Rei murmured as she watched the soldiers attempt to lift the body of one of the victims that had been hacked so violently that his torso was almost completely severed.
Smiling rather sheepishly, Rahn continued on as if he hadn't heard his sister's comment. "I'm really glad I caught you before you left," he said. "I wanted to apologise for earlier. I was way out of line."
"No, its okay. I understand," Rei assured him. As she turned to look at him, she saw just a hint of the playful and easy going young man she had always loved. "Mars knows, you have been carrying a terrible weight here and it looks like it may get worse before it gets better. I can't blame you for going off on me, Rahn. If our positions were reversed, I would be just as angry with you."
"I know you can't stay," he said softly.
"No, I really can't," she replied, her eyes asking him to understand. "Phobos is at risk, and we must travel there immediately," she explained.
"Then, by all means. Don't let me hold you up any longer," he replied, pulling her into a firm hug.
"Be careful out there," Rei said.
"Oh, I will," her brother promised.
"And, please? Take care of Mother?" Rei begged, tears forming at the corners of her eyes. She felt his hug tighten around her shoulders.
"With all my heart, and with my last drop of blood," he promised her.
Feeling somewhat better at his calm reassurance, Rei patted him firmly on the back and released her hold on him. Raising a gloved hand to wipe the tears from the corners of her eyes, she offered him a watery smile of regret. "I really must go now," she said apologetically.
"I know," he said.
Turning once again toward the main gate, Mars had taken several steps forward before she stopped and turned back one more time.
"Hey!" she shouted, just as Jupiter reached for her hand to initiate their Sailor Teleport.
"What?" he called back in playful irritation.
"Don't be a hero! You hear me?" she ordered, pointing her finger directly at him.
Placing his right hand against his chest, he raised a mocking eyebrow at his older sister. "Who, me?" he asked, his tone incredulous. "I think not. No, I believe I'll have to leave all the family heroics to you, Reibikins," he conceded rather drolly. "I'm afraid I'm just not cut out for it any more."
Rei flashed him a wide grin of approval. Then with a quick squeeze of Makoto's hand and a combined shout of, 'Sailor Teleport!', a light flashed around the two senshi and they disappeared from view.
Rahn stood there for several minutes, just staring at the place his sister had last been. Finally, he turned and walked away, a dark smirk creasing his handsome face.
In the darkness of the fading light of the courtyard, and with the obvious distraction of the threat on Phobos, neither of the senshi had noticed the dark splotches of fresh blood against the deep crimson of his uniform tunic.
"Fools," he sneered. "Queen Metallia was right. They can be beaten! Soon, everything I have ever wanted will be within my grasp, including that Venusian wench, just the way I was promised!"
As the palace doors shut behind him, he turned his thoughts firmly toward the task at hand, leaving all thoughts of his sister firmly in his wake.
He would never see her again.
Early Sunday Morning
Jolted back into the reality of their own world, Rei and Minako stared at each other in stunned disbelief for several seconds as the horror of what they had just encountered began to sink in. Both were speechless, neither knowing what to say or where to begin to try and make sense out of this totally unexpected turn of events. Finally it was Minako who found her footing first, and as she felt Rei begin to shake, all her senses immediately came fully into focus.
The priestess was covered in a fine sheen of sweat, and in the cool air left in the wake of the now quiet fire she had begun to shiver. Without a word, Minako pulled Rei back up onto the bed and into her arms, grabbing the displaced comforter from where it had been kicked earlier in the evening and wrapping it snugly around them both.
"Rei?" Minako whispered softly. "What was that? What just happened?"
Rei's only response was to wrap her arms more tightly around herself and huddle against the other young woman. Turning her face into Minako's neck, she closed her eyes and continued to shiver violently as Minako pulled her more tightly against her own warmth.
Clearly Rei's reaction was not only to the cold. Minako could easily feel that her emotions were all over the map. It was clear she was waging an internal battle with herself to understand what had just happened and to wrestle her emotions back under control.
Lowering her head, Minako rested her cheek against the top of her forgemate's head, then turned and placed a gentle, lingering kiss against her dark locks.
"I'm here," she assured the woman in her arms. "I'm right here, Reiko, and I promise you. Whatever this is, we can face it together." She could sense that Rei was listening to her. "You do know that, right?" she asked quietly.
She felt the single firm nod against her breast and almost wept in relief. A second later, she felt Rei's right hand come to rest at the point where her neck and shoulder met, and as the dark priestess pressed herself into a more secure position against the idol's warmth, her shivering finally began to subside a bit.
Minako waited patiently, knowing that Rei was desperately trying to process whatever it was she had encountered, and knowing that she would need time to do so. In truth, she herself was about to explode, her mind bursting with questions that only Rei could answer. But, it was fairly obvious that Rei was nowhere near ready to speak, and Minako knew that she could not push her in this. Tamping down her own adrenaline fueled battle-rush, Minako took a deep, calming breath and gently hugged her partner a bit more tightly before she spoke again.
"Reiko," she whispered softly. "I know you're trying to work through whatever it was you saw, my love. So, I won't push you to talk right now, okay?"
After a brief pause, Minako felt the slight movement as Rei nodded her head in acknowledgement and knew the other girl was listening to her. "I just need to know two things, okay?" Again, she felt the motion as Rei nodded her head in the affirmative. "Was that really Mars' brother, Rahn, I just saw?"
At first she was afraid Rei wouldn't answer her, but then Rei once again nodded her head, her hand unconsciously tightening against Minako's shoulder.
So it was true! She hadn't imagined it.
The number of questions immediately multiplied in the idol's mind. Too many to sort through in a short amount of time, for sure. But there was only one that was most important to her now.
"Will you be okay?" she asked, gently stroking the priestess' back, knowing better than to ask if she was okay. It was fairly obvious that she most definitely was not.
With only a brief pause, the priestess nodded firmly and then settled herself more comfortably against Minako. She had still neither opened her eyes, nor spoken a single word, but Minako could feel that she had turned a corner. The emotional turmoil was still there and she was still dealing with it, but it seemed to be leveling out a bit.
Quietly alert, Minako began to work the problem as she continued to hold Rei safely within the cradle of her arms. She had actually lost all track of time before she heard that soft voice begin to speak again, almost unrecognizable in its sheer exhaustion.
"It was him, Mina. The attack at your concert. Hibiki. Souma. All those people who suffered and died. Both of your brain tumors. Our inability to remember our past lives. It was all him."
Minako was shocked. "What? Rei? Really… how is that… I mean… even if… how could he…? That's just not possible!"
"No, it doesn't seem that way, does it?" Rei agreed wearily, her bloodshot eyes rising to meet her partners. "But still, I assure you, my love. It is true. He is solely responsible for all of it, and probably even more." At Minako's questioning look, she continued. "I would not be surprised to discover that he'd had a hand in almost every major disappointment in our lives, ranging from my mother's death to my fathers negligence."
"But how?" Minako insisted. "Rei, even if he hated us that much, he was just one young man! And a mortal man at that! He could never have possessed the kind of sheer power it would take to accomplish any of those things, much less all of them and still lived long enough to carry them all out! It's impossible!"
Rei merely shook her head. Still too weak to offer a heated protest she simply said one word as she closed her eyes in exhaustion. "Metallia."
At the mere mention of the name, Minako fell instantly silent. All previous thought processes came to a grinding halt as her commander's brain, already in the process of sorting and arranging information into workable scenarios and solutions, abruptly downshifted, scrambled to find any kind of purchase on the rocky and impossible terrain offered by her memories of their past confrontations with the evil queen. Suddenly, all she could do was stare at her second in command, as if waiting for her to continue, while praying she would not.
Unfortunately, Rei's next words just confirmed the horror.
"He sold his soul to Queen Metallia. Just like Beryl did."
A deathly silence followed Rei's weary voice, and Minako felt a chill run down her spine despite Rei's closeness and the warmth of their shared covering. Only the pop and snap of the nearby fire broke the silence of their darkened room, and finally, with a heavy sigh of resignation, Rei spoke again.
"Mina. I have to tell you what I saw, and you need to know these things, if we have any hope of defeating him. You know that, right?"
Shaking herself out of her dark thoughts, Minako answered softly. "Of course," she said. "You're right. I know you're right. It's just…"
"Difficult?" Rei suggested when she felt her partner hesitate.
"Yes," Minako admitted. "It's difficult. And I'm worried."
Perplexed, Rei looked up to catch Minako's eyes. "Worried?" she asked in concern.
"About you," the idol admitted softly.
Smiling gently, Rei briefly squeezed Minako's hand then raised her own to softly stroke the idols cheek in quiet affection. "Thank you. I really... appreciate... your concern. It means so much to me," she whispered softly. "But, we really do need to address this as soon as possible. The sooner the better"
Minako nodded her head in a agreement. "Okay," she said, " but only if you're sure you're ready." At Rei's nod of approval, Minako offered her an encouraging smile. "So, what say you just start at the beginning? Tell me what your first perceptions were, and then just go from there."
And so Rei did exactly that.
Late Saturday Night / Early Sunday Morning
These were Rei's first observations as she had woken rather suddenly to unfamiliar, but not at all unpleasant surroundings. In her arms she found Minako resting contentedly against her own gentle curves, the idols left arm curled possessively around her waist and a peaceful smile on her lips. Rei couldn't help but smile in return as she realized that this was the most happy and relaxed that she had ever seen her partner. Her skin was almost golden in the soft glow from the fireplace, and, unable to stop herself, Rei turned her head and pressed a gentle kiss to the other young woman's forehead, her lips lingering against the smoothness she found there.
Never waking, Minako hummed contentedly and snuggled closer to Rei's natural warmth. The press of her nakedness against Rei's was a not-so-subtle reminder of the love they had so recently shared, and Rei could not contain either the blush or the happy grin that covered her face. To Rei's delight, a tiny smile played at the corner of the idol's lips, and as the Priestess watched her lover's breathing even out into a deeper sleep, she felt a peace she had never before experienced in this lifetime. A connection as deep and real as time itself.
Unconsciously, Rei gently tightened her protective embrace and lowered her head to rest next to Minako's on their shared pillow. Closing her eyes, she buried her nose in the idol's soft hair, her senses overwhelmed by the fresh, clean scent, the warmth, the feel of this woman who she now realized was as much a part of herself as her own blood and sinew. Contentedly, she cuddled closer and and tried to ease back into a restful sleep.
At first she just thought she had imagined it.
But then she was sure she hadn't. The voice was weak and sounded as if it came from a great distance, but there was something about it that demanded her attention.
Opening her eyes, Rei immediately noticed that the fire was burning much brighter than it should have been after having been banked for the night. The orange and yellow flames were licking fitfully at the remaining tender, and Rei could feel the pull as it called to her as well. Being careful so as not to disturb Minako, the priestess disentangled herself from her happy resting place and rose to answer the fire's call, carefully adding a few more logs before stirring the flames to life.
She could hear the voice more clearly now, and was surprised to realize that it was actually coming from within the fire itself. Easing back against the side of the bed, Rei sat down on its edge, a bit confused by this odd turn of events. As many times as she had conferred with her revered old friend over the years, she had never actually heard it 'speak' directly to her.
Or call her by name.
No, this was slightly different!
She could feel the familiar pull of the fire that she knew so well, but within it was another force that she knew she could not, would not deny.
"Come with me now! Quickly!"
Eyes fixed on the eager flames, Rei allowed herself to relax and consciously slowed her breathing as she willingly fell into the fire's welcoming embrace.
Once again she found herself surrounded by the swirling reds and greys of the Martian plain. This time though, she was vividly aware of herself. Always before she had been only an observer, unable to be seen, even as she was able to see. It was only in her last vision that their enemy had begun to get a sense of being watched. This time though, she had actually manifested on this plain. Dressed in the robes of a Shinto Priestess, Rei also noticed that she had picked up a couple of extra accessories she hadn't been wearing before.
A beautiful and very distinctive band of solid Venusian gold was wrapped around the ring finger of her left hand.
And, tucked within the long flowing sleeves of her dogi was the familiar weight of an item she hadn't seen or felt in many years. A quick peek confirmed her suspicion, and she couldn't help but stare at it in confusion.
It was her senshi transformation bracelet.
She could almost understand her forging band, but her transformation bracelet?
Before she could even begin to process all this information though, something else had caught her eye and suddenly all her senses were drawn in that direction.
Even from the back she could tell that he was tall, broad shouldered, and carried himself in a manner that demanded respect.
This was the general she had seen in her previous reading. His long cloak and wavy black hair a dead giveaway even if his ridiculously flashy uniform had not been. He obviously had no idea that Rei was there, as he seemed totally absorbed in the matters before him on his field desk, and it gave the priestess a bit more time to observe him as he worked. Silently she moved closer to the man, drawn by both her natural curiosity and the unshakable familiarity she felt towards him.
It was almost as if she felt she knew this man.
The set of his shoulders as he worked. The quirky way in which he held his pen and the way he would impatiently wave it back and forth over the page when he was stuck and didn't know what to write next. As she moved closer, the feelings of familiarity grew even stronger, but she just couldn't place him. He appeared to be well into his forties, the once firm jaw now sagging just a little, and a vivid streak of white marring the perfection of that wavy black hair that reminded her so much of her own mother's, as well as Queen Rowena's.
And that was when it had finally hit her.
Even as she felt her eyes widen with the shock, and her mouth drop open in disbelief, she knew with unshakable certainty that it was true.
The name was out of her mouth before she could even began to weigh the pros and cons of blowing her cover.
Startled, the general sprang from his desk and spun toward her, the desk chair clattering across the floor of the room behind him. In surprised shock, he stared intently at the young woman now standing in front of him, his disbelief in her presence before him as obvious as hers was of him. Several seconds past in intense silence before either one of them could speak, and it was Rahn who recover first.
"Why, Rei! How good of you to stop by?" he began, as he straightened to his full height. Moving back across the room he recovered his wayward desk chair and returned it to the field desk. "I know its been quite some time now, sis, but actually its King Rahn now," he added with a smirk, as he swept a slightly shaky hand through his hair. "But, I really think its kind of a waste of time to dwell on such formalities with family, don't you?"
Rocked out of her stupor by the unmistakable sound of his familiar voice, Rei quickly found her own. "What are you doing here?"
Rahn looked at her and grinned. "Ah, it's nice to see that some things never change. Straightforward and to the point, just like always. You never were one to mince words, were you Rei?" When the priestess just continued to stare at him, he actually got a little defensive, obviously unnerved by her stoic silence. "Actually it is probably I who should be asking you that question since this is my command tent."
"This plain belongs to Mars and to the fire kami. As such you have no legitimate business here," she stated firmly.
Rahn laughed in delight. "Mars? Really? And no legitimate business?" he asked. "Why sister dear, I am the King of Mars! Didn't you know that?"
Rei merely continued to watch him, her expression unreadable. "There is no Mars left to rule and no Martians left to govern. That makes you the King of nothing more than a large red rock. Does that make you happy?"
Rahn frowned in annoyance, then grinned. "Aw, come on Reibikins," he teased."Don't be a hater! You're just jealous that you didn't get to take the throne before you lost your life on that pitiful little moon you loved so much. Its not my fault you backed the wrong horse."
"What do you mean?" Rei asked.
"Why Metallia, of course!" he answered. "If you and Rafe had been as smart as everyone thought you were, you'd have thought of it first," he bragged. "But, for once in my life I was finally able to beat both of you, and it really paid off for me in the end. She offered me even more than every little thing my heart had ever desired, and then made all of my dreams come true."
"What are you talking about?" Rei demanded. "Metallia was the very heart of the evil that destroyed our entire solar system. She mercilessly found a way to lay waste to every single planet and moon, all while destroying your entire family and your people. How could you even joke about such a heinous thing," Rei scolded.
"Well, that's not necessarily true,"Rahn protested. "Metallia was indeed evil, and she was responsible for many pretty horrible things, but in the case of Mars, she just supplied the power. I took care of the rest all by myself."
"What do you mean?" Rei insisted, even as she could read the horror of what she was afraid he was about to say in the ugly sneer that slowly began to spread across his face.
"Well, they did always teach us that you should keep your friends close and your enemies closer, didn't they?" he said quietly. "I just decided it was time for a bit of a regime change."
"What were you thinking?" Rei demanded. "Your mother and Father were excellent monarchs who lived only to create and maintain a wonderful world for their people! And beyond that, they were your own blood! That, if nothing else, should have meant everything to you as a Martian!" Rei cried. "They loved you, and nurtured you and gave you everything your heart could have possibly desired!"
"You're wrong!" Rahn snarled, all pretense at light hearted civility gone.
"How so?" Rei asked, her eyes begging to understand. "They all knew that you were a spoiled child, and tended to be selfish from time to time. But they tried their best to never let you feel that you were in anyway less than either Rafe or Rei. They indulging all your silly whims and showered you with love and attention as well as gifting you with anything and everything that caught your eye. Could you just explain to me what more they could have done for someone who had brought them so much joy, and that they had loved more than their own lives?"
"It still was not enough!" Rahn exclaimed, his eyes flashing the anger and hatred he still held inside for what he perceived as a gross injustice. "It could never be enough if it did not include both the throne and the very power of Mars itself!"
Interestingly enough, this really didn't come as a complete surprise to Rei, and after she took a moment to let that sink in she merely nodded her head in understanding. "I see," she finally said. "So, it comes back to that after all. The truth of the matter is that you would do anything, say anything, sacrifice anything, just to have the only two things in existence that you could not have."
"Yes!" he said, lifting his chin in defiance. "Why shouldn't I? Queen Metalia showed me a way I could have the throne, the planet, and your bleeding heart beating in the palm of my hand!"
"You hated your own brother and sister that much?" Rei asked.
"No," he disagreed, a slight smile breaking the thin line of his lips. "It wasn't just you and that buffoon of a brother I hated. It was anyone and everyone that stood between me and what Metallia had promised me."
Rahn's eyes crinkled in delight and his smile broadened as he watched the true horror of what he had just said break across the Priestess' beautiful face.
"It was really kinda easy, once I got past the first one," Rahn began. "I knew Father would be a tough old bird, so I over compensated a bit and almost took myself out as well," he admitted sheepishly. "But, it taught me a few pretty valuable lessons, and proved to me the truth of that old saying about that which doesn't destroy you making you stronger. After that, poor little Richard was a cakewalk. Rafe was too wily and well guarded for me to go straight after him next, so I had to figure out another way. Ricky was the next logical choice. It was simply a matter of making it appear as if his broken neck were the result of a fall from his horse. I mean, really? Who would dare to suspect that his grief-stricken uncle, the man who had carried him in his arms all the way back to the palace, was actually the same man that had snapped his little neck with his bare hands?" Rahn grinned, and Rei felt her blood run cold at the sight. "I will admit that it did give me a bit of a twinge to off the boy the way I did, but it seemed to prove something to my great Queen. After that, I felt such a surge of power as I had never experienced before, and I knew that in the end, all my sacrifices would be worth it!"
Rei found herself utterly speechless, unable to defend herself against the onslaught of horrible images that began to assail every corner of her mind. And still, he rambled on.
"Unfortunately, I got a little too greedy with that last bomb, and it ended up costing me more than I thought I would have to pay."
Rei merely looked at him and waited for the elaboration she knew was coming. It surprised her to see a flash of regret, but it was quickly gone as he returned to his story.
"When Gracie announced that she was pregnant again, I knew I had to act, and quickly. Mars knows, if I had let them both keep living long enough I would have never ascended to my rightful throne!" he groused. "Once my hand was forced, I'm afraid I didn't plan it as carefully as I should have," he admitted, and Rei was astonished to see the sudden flash of hurt and anger flare up on his handsome face. "Damnit, Rafe should have died in that blast as well!" he insisted, running his hand through his hair in agitation as he looked up into Rei's eyes once again, almost as if he were pleading with her to understand.
"What do you mean?" Rei finally choked out in a voice she barely recognized as her own. "I thought he did."
"Eventually yes, but not because of the blast!" Rahn insisted impatiently."That stubborn bastard!" he exclaimed angrily. "He just absolutely refused to die, and Mother would not leave his side! I swear to you, Rei!" he insisted, looking up into her serious dark brown eyes, "I never meant for her to… I loved her, Rei."
Rei watched in fascination the play of emotions that swept across his face as his voice broke off abruptly. Pride and arrogance had given way to anger, guilt and surprisingly enough, anguish and remorse.
"Tell me what happened, Rahn," she said softly.
"Some time after you and that Jovian warrior wench had gone off to address the little party I had arranged for you on Phobos, I finally persuaded mother to leave the room long enough to refresh herself. I knew it would be my best chance to finish what I had started, and so the instant she left, I grabbed a pillow and leaned into it as I covered his face, sure that it wouldn't take me long to do. The next thing I knew, he had an iron grip on both my wrists, and I thought he was about to come off the bed and take me down right then and there. We struggled. He was still very strong, but I had the upper hand, and just as I was finishing the deal, Mother came back in. When she saw me standing over him with the pillow in my hands, she screamed, and I knew the jig was up. What I didn't expect was for her to attack me the way she did! She ripped a sword off the wall and came at me with every indication that she knew how to use it. The next thing I knew she was in my face and we were locked into the kind of real, life and death battle I had never experienced before. It was obvious right away that she knew what she was doing, and I'd had no idea she was as experienced a fighter as she was. I was very foolish. I should have known better than to underestimate her. " His eyes dropped, and shame was written all over his face. "In time her age and inactivity caught up to her, and I once again gained the upper hand. But she still refused to yield. She…"
His voice broke off, and Rei found herself waiting for his next words to fall as if they were a sword pointed at her own heart. "She what, Rahn?" she finally asked.
"She… she fell on her own sword rather than surrender to the man who had killed her family. That's what she said to me in the end," he said. Then, looking up at Rei, he had asked the question that had obviously haunted him for years. "But wasn't I her family too?"
A deadly silence filled the stale air that passed between them until the general spoke once more.
"I would have really liked to blame you for all of this," he stated, as Rei raised shocked and horrified eyes to meet his own. "It would be so easy and convenient to do so. After all, you did possess the power of Mars, and should have been able to easily discern what I was doing," he confessed. "But in all honesty, I am the reason you could not."
"Eh?" Rei asked in total surprise.
He smiled. "You look confused, Reibikins," he said, that insufferable smirk creasing his lips once more. "Haven't you been concerned? Wondering why you couldn't sense any of this, or me, or what I was doing?" he asked. "Well, let me break it down for you," he said simply. "I blocked you."
"Wh...What?" Rei exclaimed, and Rahn grinned in delight, eager to bragg about one of his greatest accomplishments.
"It was the very first use I found for the power Queen Metallia gave me, and it was relatively easy to do. I knew I wouldn't be able to get very far with you and the old priest being able to see everything I was planning before I could even get started, so I created a barrier. A cloaking spell if you will, and I must say it worked like a charm!" As Rei stared at him open-mouth, he continued. "Queen Metallia was quite impressed. She even did a huge favor for me, by getting rid of an even bigger issue than you, but you needn't worry about that right now, sister dear. No, you currently have enough on your own plate to deal with without concerning yourself over that little detail," he laughed.
"But wait," Rei protested. "That can't be true. I've had no problem whatsoever in using my gifts of either fire reading or extrasensory perception, then or now."
"Really?" the dark prince asked, raising one brow in mocking question. "It seems to me like you actually missed a great deal of detail in both lifetimes. What a shame! How do you think that happened, Rei? And how about this? Maybe, just maybe if you hadn't been so caught up in your forgemate's medical drama this time around you'd have really been able to do your job!" he sneered, truly enjoying her total confusion. "But even then, you still had no idea that I even existed, much less that I was behind it all! Oh, I had a field day with that!" he laughed. "Poor little Mars! What a shame neither she nor any of her pathetic little senshi friends can regain their precious memories! Whoa is me!"
Rei looked quickly at him then, her eyes boring into his, and he met her accusing stare with a gleeful grin. "That's right, sis. I was responsible for that too. I'd had plenty of time before you reappeared this time around to refine and polish my powers, and it paid off in spades!"
"Minako had her memories," Rei countered.
"True," Rahn acknowledged. "Very true. For some reason or another I was never quite able to deceive her. She was always able to see right through me. Maybe that's why…" he mused, his voice trailing off for a moment before he continued. "Well I'll just say this, I was very fortunate in that she never could take me seriously. Her misfortune," he tossed off with a shrug. "I had to find another way to take her out."
"Wait!" Rei demanded. "What do you mean, 'take her out'? I thought you were after the throne of Mars and it's planetary power. What did she have to do with that?"
"See, that's what I like, sis! Now you're paying attention!" he said happily. "Queen Metallia not only set me on the path to my throne, she offered me more power than you could ever possibly possess from just one puny little planetary source, and I took it! I took it all and laughed at your pain with a smile on my face and a song in my heart!" he sneered. "She showed me that even though I would never be able to possess your power, I could still destroy you, both heart and soul! The fact that your Venusian whore was such an arrogant bitch just made it that much easier for me to do!"
Rei felt a chill run down her spine, even as her blood began to boil. "You mean you attacked Minako just to get to me?" she bit out, daring him to confirm his hateful words.
"No, not exactly," he admitted. "That was just a delightful perk that came along for the ride. Kinda like killing two ravens with one stone," he smirked. "No, I attacked her because she deserved it! How dare she defy me! Me! Who would have given her everything on a golden platter! I never truly offered myself to anyone, and she just ignored me, and insulted me, and gave herself to you!" he spat, "Well, I swore I'd make her pay, and I have! And she'll continue to pay for it until she either becomes my personal pet or dies!"
"What are you even talking about?" Rei raged, her hands balling up into fists as she barely fought down her anger. "Venus has already died! Twice!"
"Yes, I know," he acknowledged, an insufferable smirk on his handsome face. "I always regretted that I wasn't able to be of more help to my Great Queen during that final Silver Millenium Battle. She had held me in reserve as Queen Beryl's back up at the time, and I had just begun to send my forces in for the coup de grace when the end came. It all happened so quickly that I was barely able to escape with a small remnant of my army. We were just able to return to Mars and regroup." He shook his head sadly. "I was truly disappointed that I was only able to watch her die that first time. However, the second time? Well," the smile he gave Rei was pure evil itself. "I'm afraid that one was all on me."
Rei's anger was beyond words, and Rahn was loving every minute of it. "Brain tumor, right?" he taunted. He watched her began to tremble in rage and he then laughed. "You know watching her collapse on the street like she did was so very satisfying to me," he confided. "But the best part? The best part was watching you self destruct when you found out she was gone!" he added hatefully. "MI-NA-KO!" he cried out, mocking her pain. Then he burst into gales of laughter as he watched her fight for control of her impotent fury.
"You bastard!" she spat, her eyes burning him to ash even if her hands did not. She so wanted to call out for her transformation just to see if the bracelet would still work, but that same voice that had called her here to begin with held her back, and she knew she could not show her full hand. Not yet. With what little self control she was still clinging to, she held herself in check.
As his laughter finally slowed, he shook his head in wry amusement. "Yes, I feel I can honestly say that the last incarnation of your group as Sailor Guardians was some of my finest work to date. Our Great Queen was most pleased with me," he admitted, his pride in accomplishment quite obvious. "The fact that I was able to incapacitate your leader with a terminal illness and block all your memories of the SIlver Millenium effectively threw your entire team off balance and robbed you of your true strength and powers. Don't believe me?" he asked, a lone brow arching high over his dark brown eyes. "Have you ever even heard of a 'Fire Soul Bird' or a 'Flame Sniper'?"
As Rei continued to merely glare at him, literally shaking with her repressed rage, his nasty grin widened. "No, I didn't think so. You can't possibly began to understand what a disappointment it was to see you all again. And so soon after I was absolutely sure that I had finally gotten rid of you for good. When I realized that I was going to have to go through all this same tired old drivel again, it seemed so unfair! So, I just decided to mix things up a bit this time to make it more interesting, and I gave myself a little insurance policy. I'm sure you remember Nakano Tohma, don't you Reibikins?"
He grinned as the look of recognition passed over the priestess' stoic face.
"Yes, I knew you would," he said softly. "But, what a disappointment he turned out to be! I'd had such high hopes for the boy, too," Rahn said as he shook his head. "We could have had such a fine old time 'entertaining' your wife," he goaded. "I had all kinds of special plans in place for her arrival. What a shame it was that he let himself be taken out so easily by a woman with a simple bow and a quiver of arrows. And in this day and age, too. What an idiot!" he lamented as he shook his dark head in regret.
"But we are not even the same people you're talking about!" she managed to bite out through her clenched teeth. "Why did you even pursue this? Your sister, her forgemate, and all of her fellow Sailor Guardians died in the ruins of the Moon Kingdom. In addition to that, your plans and schemes greatly contributed to our downfall this last time around. Seriously, Rahn? Don't you think that's enough?"
"No!" he roared. "It will never be enough, as long as you both continue to pop up like weeds everytime I turn around!"
"We. Are. NOT. Those. Girls," Rei insisted, punctuating each words like a poke in the eye.
"You're close enough!" he snarled. "You are 'The Avatars Of Mars and Venus', and as such are cursed to bloody hell in my book!"
As Rahn took off on another rant about Minako and how she had done him wrong, Rei was sure that she was on the verge of bursting into spontaneous combustion. Never in her entire life had she felt such rage, and the desire to kill this man on the spot was becoming more attractive with each poisoned word that sprang forth from his hateful lips. Her fingers began to literally itch with the need to end his life, and just as she thought she couldn't take anymore, she felt an unmistakable presence wrap around her like a protective cloak.
It could only be Minako.
"I'm here, Reiko! I'm right here with you! I'm not going anywhere love, I promise! Whatever this is, I have your back!"
Rei immediately felt her inner fire start to subside, and a welcome calm began to take the place of the raging fury that had so recently threatened to consume her, body and the time Rahn eventually wound down, Rei had regained her equilibrium a bit and merely waited as he stood there glaring at her. "So, I see," she began, with a calmness that was almost icy in its complete detachment. 'It makes absolutely no difference to you that you have been persecuting the wrong people for things they had nothing to do with?"
"Oh, you're my sister alright," he sneered. "It's like fate returned you and your little forgemate to me so I could finally make you pay for everything I have suffered!"
Rei shook her head and looked him dead in the eyes. "See, that's where you're wrong. I am Hino Rei, a Shinto Priestess and the daughter of Hino Risa and Ryogi of Appi Kogen prefecture. I have no siblings, as I was first born and my mother died before she could give me any. While it is true that as Mars I am forged to Venus, my Minako is no more the Minako Aino you knew than I am your sister. While I am appalled at the heinous nature of your crimes against both humanity and your own family, make no mistake," she declared, taking an aggressive step toward him. "I feel absolutely no connection to you personally, and will not hesitate to kill you on sight if you threaten either my forgemate or myself."
Rahn laughed in her face and clapped his hands in mocking appreciation of her declaration. "Bravo! Bravo, little Hino Rei! Bravely spoken indeed for someone who can no longer channel her planetary power! What could you possibly do against me?" He laughed at her again. "Shoot me with your little bow and arrow?"
Rei said nothing. She only continued to glare at him.
"No, you will both suffer and die because I have deemed it so!" he haughtily declared. "But first I will right a wrong done to me by you both!"
"Is that so?" Rei asked, her disdain at his declaration goading his last nerve.
"Yes! It is!" he answered forcefully. "I'm going to take back what was rightfully mine!"
"And that is?" Rei asked in mocking tones.
"The Princess of Venus!" he roared. "She never should have been yours in the first place! From the moment I saw her, I knew she was destined to be mine. I even asked Mother to speak with The Queen of Venus on my behalf, but you had already soiled her by that time!" His face grew dark with the memories. "If I had not already hated you at the time, I would have surely hated you after I realized what you had done to her! Well, things have changed this time around, sis! I've seen enough of your foot dragging and hesitation about claiming her for your own again to make me know that she is still ripe for the taking. You snooze, you lose, bitch! That's what you get for being asleep at the wheel! She may have been yours in your past life, but she will be mine this time around!"
"We are Forged, you idiot!" Rei declared "It doesn't matter what you want!"
"Do you seriously think that your Forging means anything to me?" he challenged. "I assure you, 'Hino Rei'. I will take her for my own use, and damn anyone who thinks otherwise! No, this time around I will be the one to possess her, and no one else!"
"Is that a fact?" Rei asked, a warning smile slowly appearing on a face that just a few moments ago had shown only stoic defiance.
"Just as sure as I'm standing here!" he declared forcefully. "I swear to you before Great Mars himself! If I can't have her, then no one will!"
A dark smile spread across the planes of the priestess' beautiful face, and when her eyes flashed with amusement, Rahn felt his blood run cold.
As he watched, the figure of another young woman began to appear. Naked arms and legs were wrapped rather intimately around the Priestess' sturdy frame like a clinging vine, and the suggestively ruffled head of bedroom hair resting over her right shoulder just screamed 'I'll bet you can guess what I've been doing'.
With a triumphant grin, Rei stated, "I already have."
As the woman's face came fully into focus, Rahn was totally floored to find Aino Minako looking directly into his startled eyes, and it was crystal clear she was not liking what she was seeing one little bit.
Then suddenly, before he could even begin to recover from the initial shock of seeing them both standing right in front of him, they were gone. In a brilliant flash of light they simply vanished, leaving nothing more than dead air to show their passing, and he was certain that there was nothing he could do that would ever fully erase that last image of them from his troubled mind.
He had been too late.
Cruelly his own words, so recently hurled at his older sister, came back to haunt him.
'You snooze, you lose, bitch!'
Early Sunday Morning - 3:00 AM
Fire light offered a soft orange glow to the quiet and stillness of the darkened bedroom. The soft 'thump' of the heating system as it cycled off was the only other sound in the room beside the gentle even breathing of the exhausted young woman who was finally resting peacefully in Minako's arms.
Quietly alert, the leader of the Inner Guard watched over her sleeping partner. Physically worn from the exhaustive fire reading, Rei had also been both mentally and emotionally drained by the confrontation with an enemy she had only recently started to remember as a well-loved member of her Martian family.
Minako's memories of the young General had been quite different. She had always found him to be tedious, tiring, arrogant and downright obnoxious. She had not shared those feelings with Rei because she'd not really felt the need to say something she knew would be upsetting to her for no good reason.
And quite frankly, he had never really been a blip on her radar.
She had always known that he had a raging crush on her, but for the most part she had chosen to ignore both it and him. That had always seemed to work out for the best, with a few notable exceptions. The incident at the reception following their Forging ceremony being one, and another several years before that on Venus at the official announcement of their engagement.
Minako smiled grimly. She had never mentioned that particular run-in to Rei either. One, because she didn't see a need to 'rock-the-boat', and two, because her volatile and protective Martian lover would have gone off on her baby brother like a megaton bomb. That would have definitely put a strain on their future family relationships which she felt everyone would be better off without.
Her eyes narrowed at the long forgotten memory. No, she had handled that little encounter all by herself. It had taken all of two minutes, and when she was finished with him and his entourage she had left them panting in the dust of the oasis with the firm knowledge that they were only still breathing because she was allowing them to. She had cemented that knowledge with one simple move that had graphically illustrated to them just how much she had 'pulled her punches' with them, and they had cowered before her in mortal fear.
All except for Rahn himself.
He had looked up at her from the sand and dirt in which he had landed, and in his eyes Minako could see and feel several different emotions writhing through his consciousness like snakes in an empty pit.
Fear, hatred, lust, surprise, and severe embarrassment had dominated the mulligan stew of his current emotional state. But intermingled with them and overshadowing them all was an overwhelming sense of an evil so deep that she had not been able to associate it with the young man before her who was so well loved by so many kind and wonderful people. At the time she had chosen to write it off as something else, with the confidence that she had handled it firmly and decisively. As far as she was concerned, the incedent was over with and forgotten.
She could now see that had been a huge mistake.
How many lives had been changed forever or lost because she had not ended his existence there in the dust of her home world?
Minako frowned. There was nothing she could do about that now. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say, and she had made the only decision she could then, based on the knowledge she'd had at the time.
More importantly, that was then. She needed to be concerning herself with now.
Rei stirred, her cheek brushing softly against the idol's shoulder before she once again quieted in sleep. Minako gently tightened her arms, her eyes closing against the strength of her emotions as she quietly hugged the other young woman.
They had two more days.
On Wednesday she would be going into surgery so that Dr. Akai could remove the tumor that a seemingly ageless Rahn had somehow managed to put there.
How did they know it would work? What would he find? A simple pituitary tumor? Or would a full blown youma spring forth out of the incision and kill everyone in the operating room?
And if it did work? What would prevent him from doing it again? And again? And again? Or even worse, coming up with another situation they wouldn't recognize until it was too late and other innocent people were killed or maimed?
Minako's thoughts were filled with memories of Hibiki and Souma. Of how they had lived and of how it had all ended, and she knew she could not let it happen again.
In the silence of the dimly lit room, Minako began to work the problem. Different situations and scenarios came to life in her agile mind, and she began to realize that this was an issue that she and Rei would not be able to handle on their own. There was too much going on and too many as yet unknown variables. They would need help if they ever hoped to win through. Deep in her own thoughts, the idol singer unconsciously began to rub her left thumb distractedly against her ring finger, and had kept the motion up for some time before it dawned on her that something was different. With Rei still held within the circle of her arms, she had to look down and over the other woman's shoulder to see her own hand. But when she did what she saw there caused her mouth to drop open in pure shock. With a single quick but gentle motion, she brought Rei's left hand into her own warm grasp and confirmed what she could not believe she was seeing.
This couldn't be true!
A firm, gentle tug confirmed what she already knew. It would not come off.
Some how, some way, across time and through the very depths of space itself, the Holy Forge of Life had found a way to return their sacred forging bands.
In disbelief, the stunned idol was still staring at the beautiful bands she remembered so well when the now quiet fire flared brightly once again. A brilliant light flashed once around her slender wrist, and when it was gone she was once again wearing a very familiar bracelet. A quick look confirmed that Rei's was already in place, and Minako frowned at the implications.
As happy as she was to have her ring back, the appearance of the transformation bracelet could mean only one thing.
There was a real battle coming, and somebody very powerfully needed their help.
Minako smiled grimly as she continued to hold tightly to her sleeping forgemate. The feeling was mutual. And in the waning hours of what was still the single, most happiest night of her life, a strategy slowly began to form and take shape in her mind.
Divide and conquer.
Team Minako was going to war, and it was time to awaken her Special Forces.
END CHAPTER 14