All characters and settings are used here without permission.
You know this part by heart now, so I'll skip to the new stuff.
All original characters belong to me. Please drop me a line if you want to use them.
Joe is a cameo mention of Mr. Black from Rorschach's Blot's "Make a Wish" (here on ) and the various spin offs of that story. If you haven't read it, I would readily recommend it. This cameo does take into consideration the pseudo sequel: Terminal Justice (you need to be a member of the CaerAzkaban Yahoo group in order to read it, but it's well worth signing up). It is set during the time when Mr. Black is adrift due to the Universal Remote.
The City of Shade
He entered the city at dawn, splitting himself four times and sending two copies to scout out the lay of the floating abomination, and one would act as his decoy while he remained cloaked in the Umisen-ken to watch his clone's back. He was walking into a trap. It was fairly plain and really unimaginative. After saving Akane so many times, Ranma had become something of an expert on rescuing damsels in distress.
His connection to his students made it easy for the clones to find his missing family. Well, everyone but Sefaril. She seemed to be cloaked from his sight by a veil of darkness. The problem was that the spells guarding those that his aspects did find were foreign weaves, and therefore would take some time to unravel. It should give his other aspects time to find her. He pressed forward with his clone, allowing the copy to beat on the guards that seemed to pop up at random intervals.
Shar's stink pervaded the city, and he idly noted that there was a minute drain on the Shadow Weave. He left it alone when it became apparent that it was pretty much the only thing keeping the city afloat. In spite of the stain the city represented, Ranma was impressed with the complexity of the spells that he saw. There was a profane beauty about the place, and a part of him was sad that it was no doubt going to get messed up. Excessive, if random, property damage always seemed to happen around him in these situations; regardless of how hard he tried to avoid it. Still, it was no skin off his nose. If these bastards wanted their city to remain standing, they shouldn't have walked off with his people. It was their own damn fault…karma and all that.
The veil hiding Sefaril slipped for an instant; probably due to the morons having to renew whatever spell was hiding her. Then again, it might have been a signal in order to lure him in. Ranma wasn't a betting man, but his gut was telling him that it was the latter over the former. He and his clone picked up on her position easily and knew that the game had just advanced to another round.
We feint and then bring 'em in close. Ranma sent to his clones. Test their technique and then poke holes in the weak spots.
Why not just get in and out? A distant clone asked.
Shar. Ranma frowned. She's hidin' in the shadows somewhere around here. We're going to draw her out and finish this once and for all. Let the slag know not ta mess with us again. I ain't dealin' with another Ryouga or a Kuno if I don' haf'ta.
We looking at a permanent solution, Boss?
We got responsibilities now. Sefaril and the baby, everyone back in Providence…these people ain't playing the Game. They're serious.
So we're serious…gotcha, Boss.
And so the real Ranma and his clone advanced, while the other two ghosted through the gladiatorial prisons. They silently marked each of the prisoners for extraction, a trigger spell that send everyone back to Providence, and then sat back and waited. Ranma and his partner moved into a large complex silently, and immediately followed a rather important looking man. Ranma knew he was important because he had stooges kissing his butt every third step.
They followed him into the bowels of the building, moving down almost thirty stories before they finally came to a pair of massive portals. The Head Idiot barked out orders, and his men scrambled to open the doors. Ranma looked inside and saw Sefaril chained between two large columns, atop some sort of arcane mosaic.
There's the cheese. He growled.
She looks unharmed. The clone noted. Can't get a reading on her from here though. There's too much interference.
Ranma studied the situation for a few more moments while the apparent Big Bad monologued or something equally stupid. He noted some subtle nuances emanating from the Shadow Weave. The drain was more pronounced here, and it stood to reason that this must be the engine room for whatever was keeping the city afloat. The nuances weren't telling him much, but it was enough for his mind to make the connections.
Ain't interference. It's a cloak technique like the Umisen-ken.
Yeah. I see it now. The clone nodded. The Shadow Weave's breaking around it. It's something powerful too. You thinking what I'm thinking.
Of course stupid! You're me!
You think she's going to gloat?
She's a frickin' Cosmic Kodachi! What do you think?
Piss off, bastard. I'm just askin' how we want ta handle this.
Spring the trap. But, only after you confirm that's Sefaril. If it is, tag her and let things play out. If it ain't, then pretend it is. Let 'em think they got us. Ham it up.
When you going to come in?
If it's really Sefaril, then right away.
And if it ain't?
I send the others to find her and then I'll come.
You ain't going ta let Shar violate me, are ya?
What the hell are you talkin' about?
You remember that time just after Taro and the Letch blew up the Okuzaki's shop? We got caught in the blast…
Stop. Ranma shuddered. I see where yer goin' with this.
I ain't getting' stripped by a psycho again, Dude. If it looks like I'm gonna be raped, you sure as hell better save me!
Stop whining. I'll save yer butt. Just do yer part.
The clone nodded and waited for the Big Bad to leave. He waited for another fifteen minutes before advancing into the room unimpeded. The real Ranma attuned his senses to the clone, looking through its eyes and doing his best to look for any less than obvious traps. The floor mosaic was rife with magic, but Ranma was having trouble understanding what his senses were telling him about its purpose.
The chains holding Sefaril weren't metal. At least they didn't look like metal. They were carved, and the material was a greenish black color. The runes looked to be suppressing the magic within Sefaril, binding it or blocking it in some fashion. Just looking at the things sent a chill running down his spine.
Don't snap 'em. He warned. Something ain't right about them. Try not ta touch 'em either if ya can avoid it.
Yeah, Brainiac? And how the hell do you expect me ta release her without touching the damn chains?
Don't touch 'em with yer skin, Dip Stick! Ranma growled. Use yer shirt ta hold 'em when you pop the manacles.
The real Ranma growled silently and shook his head. Dealing with himself was a pain. It was little wonder that Ryouga and Mousse hated him so much. He turned his attention back to the clone and watched as it reached out and gently touched Sefaril's cheek. A miasma of black emotions shot through his mind. A hideously alien presence was nestled at the core of the look-a-like.
Ain't Sefaril. He sent to the other clones. Get yer butts in gear and find her. Let me know when you find her. I'm hanging here with Romeo to watch his back and see how this plays out. Alright, Romeo. Break a leg.
Ranma watched through the eyes of the clone as it whispered comfortingly to the doppelganger. It peeled out of its shirt and popped the imitator free. Once the second hand was out of the manacle, the fake made its move, wrapping the clone's wrist in the odd chains.
Agony shot across the link and a sudden siphoning sensation pulled at the core of his very being. Ranma heard the clone roar in pain and rage. And then there was nothing.
"An injustice has been done against the Seldarine." The voice of Angharradh echoed like thunder throughout Arvandor. The skies darkened and all denizens, power and petitioner alike felt the anguish and fury of the Queen of Arvandor wash over them. "The Well is sealed and the Souls adrift in the tide! Shevarash! Attend me!"
The Black Archer before the Triune Goddess and knelt immediately. Corellon entered on the Archer's heel. It had been ages since the Triune Goddess had manifested. Aerdrie Faenya, Hanali Celanil, and Sehanine Moonbow preferred to work separately these days, rather than bind themselves as an individual. It was a pleasure to see his queen again after so long, even if she was dressed for war and looking fit to kill. Her spear, Duskshaft, pulsed hungrily in her hands.
"I am come, Oh Queen." Corellon called from the mouth of the grove. "What causes the Queen of Arvandor to garb for war?"
"The Darkness has bound the Well of Souls shut. The spirits of my children cry out, having none to guide their way."
"When did he accept the mantle in full?"
"Glauenthiel heard the cries of those trapped in the Underdark and freed them from their bonds. Since that moment, he has been a beacon for the souls of all elves across the face of Toril. Now the beacon is silent! I demand retribution, Lord Corellon!"
"As do others, my Queen." Corellon closed his eyes and tapped his chin in thought. It would be a delicate thing, but if he could manage it, Shar's powers would lessen greatly. "Shevarash, guide and protect your Queen in her quest. Take her to the Gates of the Moon, and there seek out Selune. From there travel to Brightwater and collect Sharess, whom the Darkness had once imprisoned. Offer her justice for her cooperation in this endeavor."
"It shall be as you command, my Lord Coronal."
Corellon nodded and kissed his wife in welcome and farewell.
"Safe journey and swift victory, Lady Wife."
"I will return with speed, Lord Husband."
"Only when the Dark Whore is broken before you." He laughed. "Call should you need us."
"Shall we have a victory feast waiting?"
"I should be cross if you don't."
The King of Arvandor shuddered as she and the Black Archer disappeared into the ether. He moved to his throne and sat for a long while, pondering the return of his long absent wife. How strange Ranma's power and influence were. He truly was the Catalyst of Change, just as Kihon'i had said. The signs and portents all pointed to something big coming down the trail, and Corellon found himself scrambling to make certain his elves were ready for the upheaval. He hoped his efforts would be enough.
Klauth, the Great Red Dragon of the North, shifted uncomfortably in his lair. His minions tended to his now crippled body faithfully, their fear and a multitude of enchantments keeping them loyal to his service. They milled about, rubbing useless healing ointments into his now shattered hindquarters, and the terror that wafted off of them as they realized that the salves and potions were having no effect, was worse than annoying. He'd eaten three humans and an ogre just this morning for their continuous bumbling and whining! He knew he was not long for this world. He didn't need their inane emotions grating on his already stretched nerves.
His once powerful hips hadn't healed well after his confrontation with the degenerate rogue blue (verify). Another dispute, only seven days past, with a thrice damned crusading gold whelp, had left him paralyzed from the hips down. Klauth had come out victorious in both conflicts, and the impressive increase in his hoard was truth that the ancient dragon was still powerful in spite of his injuries.
So why did he feel so very empty inside?
The jewels had lost their luster, and the gold was no longer as soft as it had once been. The priceless magical artifacts were now commonplace and the slaves he'd inherited tasted flat. All of his time was now spent watching and dreaming of his beloved Silver Princess.
His thoughts drifted continually to the sheen of her hair, the lilt of her voice, and the curve of her perfect form. His imagination would run away from him, giving her a more pleasing draconic form. Mythril scales and sapphire eyes sparkled in his mindscape. She was more desirable than any dragon he'd mated with, and her perfection outshone the sun itself. He did not have words to describe the intense longing he felt every time he saw her now. It was beyond obsession.
He hungered for her presence in his life. He yearned to be seen by her, to hear her musical voice echo off the walls of his lair, and smell her perfumed scent…if only just once before he died. It was all he lived for.
He watched her ascension from powerful immortal to the laudable state of demi-goddess, and mighty Klauth fell in love anew. He watched as she learned at the feet of her tutor, and he too gained knowledge and wisdom. It wasn't often that a dragon of his age and stature could claim to learn something new.
Dragons of all makes and pedigrees respected power. The red dragons of Faerun coveted it more than most. For Klauth, there were few dragons that he respected – and only a sparse few that he'd even deem close to being his equal. None truly could compare to his majesty, but there were a few worthies that he admitted were powerful in their own right. Yet even among these, he would never deign gift a female with the singular token of his love. None were truly powerful or worthy enough to receive such an honor.
But his Beloved…she was altogether different. Her power continued to grow daily, and Tiamat be damned, Klauth sent his prayers to her instead of the fickle Dragon Gods. He had faith that one day she would hear his prayers and come to him. He held no delusions that she would forgive him his many trespasses – and they had been many. No. Old Snarl accepted that Hell had a place waiting for him; and if he could but hear her voice speak to him, or feel her soft hands touch him, just once, he would go quietly to his damnation with a content heart.
So he re-activated his scrying spell anew and sought out his Silver Princess. His prayers were fervent and ceaseless, focused solely on begging for her attention to look his way before the shroud of death fell upon him.
It would be a surprise for him and his minions, when some weeks later his prayer would be answered. But, for now, the ancient crimson dragon watched and prayed, while his minions fretted, scurried, and offered up their own prayers to whatever gods would hear them. Some even listened. A few even answered.
Elminster had plenty of experience with apprentices. He'd tutored so many over the years that he could honestly say that he'd seen the gambit of what humanity, Elvish, gnomish, and many other races had to offer. Yet, in all that vast experience, nothing prepared him for the voraciousness of Ranma-chan. She was a sponge. No, she was more like that crazy gnomish contraption that sucked up anything and everything in its elephantine nozzle that wasn't securely nailed down to the floor.
In one sense it was magnificent, yet in another it terrified him at how fast she was learning. Most people required experience to understand and temper the knowledge they gained. Ranma-chan simply absorbed the concept and in many cases improved upon it!
The sharing of knowledge had started innocently enough after leaving the capital. El had cast a spell using physical and audible components, and Ranma-chan had asked him why he'd done it that way. Phaele's exasperated sigh had given the impression that this was not the first time Ranma-chan had asked such a question. Elminster dutifully sat Ranma-chan down and began with the basics, describing the innate power in certain spell components, and the focusing power that certain words and gestures allowed. The red-haired goddess' response was to produce the same spell without the components. Her smug grin said it all – her way was much better, and didn't sound half as silly.
El sighed and repeated the gesture without the components, mostly to show that he too could do it the "easy" way. Ranma-chan again questioned him on why he used smelly animal parts, non-sense words, and silly "finger wiggling" when he had a much easier and more reliable method open to him. The Magister then went on to explain that sometimes, when he was too tired to do it one way, the other way is still open to him. Understanding how to do things in many different ways allowed him more flexibility.
The thought intrigued Ranma-chan so much she begged him to teach her. That alone knocked him for a loop. Here was a goddess, asking and begging like a child hyped up on sweets to be taught. He couldn't find it in himself to say no, especially when she dangled some of her own magical insights under his nose. Thus it began, El would teach in the day focusing on wizardry and the more logical, scientific approach to connecting with the Weave. He helped her craft a rudimentary spellbook, cobbled together from his long memory and the generous sharing of insights from one of his older tomes he kept on his person for just this sort of occasion. His duties as Magister required him to spread magic far and wide, and just because Ranma-chan was a goddess of magic didn't mean she understood all of its forms…yet. At the pace she was devouring things, he'd give her a good five years before she surpassed him; and considering the breadth and width of his knowledge, that was certainly saying something.
In the evenings, once they'd stopped their journey for the day, Ranma introduced El to her sphere of magic. It was the most intimate and sensual magical experience he'd ever had, barring that special day when Mystra had claimed him for her own. The kata and the movements flowed, allowing his spirit to connect to the Weave on a new and ever expanding level. She taught him many different forms, beginning with something called Tai Chi, and moving into many others like: Hung Gar and Chu Gar, Shaolin Kung Fu, and Ba Gua. For each "style" Elminster learned, certain forms of magic seemed to come easier or more readily. And the further he progressed in each individual form, the more he gleaned of the nuances of the casting. His understanding of magic expanded into deeper and more majestic levels than he had ever experienced before. Ranma's disciple Phaele explained that it was because he'd joined himself to the "Flow" of its currents and allowed himself to be carried by it rather than trying to force and command the energies.
He was now a true conduit for magic, and in this he could understand why Ranma-chan had scoffed at his crude gestures and smelly entrails. Not even his vulgar attempts at sorcery had allowed him this depth of submersion in the life blood of creation.
But, for all the intimacy of Ranma-chan's methods, El could still see the uses for wizardry and his fumbling attempts at sorcery. It was a foundation…a bridge between the mundane and magnificent. And, as he taught Ranma-chan, he could see how her own art grew in response. It was a heady feeling, knowing that he was impacting the future of magic on such a fundamental scale. Of course Phaele and the other companions seemed to absorb things at an accelerated rate as well, cross training as they were.
Even Koneko-chan was learning and teaching new things, such as speech (she was learning the common tongue and teaching the nuances of feline body language) and societal (both civil and bestial) manners. It made El feel useful again, something he hadn't felt in a very long time. The fact that all of his students were unearthly beauties might have helped just a little bit.
It was during these lessons that Elminster gained a much more personal understanding of this aspect of the Weavebender's character. Primarily, he came to understand what drove her; unity and vengeance against Shar. It was an understandable, albeit human, response to Ranma-chan's situation; but it was one that concerned Elminster greatly. To be honest, there were a number of things that concerned Elminster. The first was probably the most obvious: Shar, in the celestial scheme of things, was a greater power. Ranma was still an infant in all things divine.
Second, Shar had legions of followers all of whom vastly outnumbered Ranma's fledgling flock. And to round out his top three, Shar was no doubt goading Ranma into attacking; no doubt, in the hopes of luring the new god into a trap of her design.
El sighed and shook his head as he ate his breakfast. If Ranma wanted to uphold the long time tradition of vengeance, she needed to practice some serious patience and find out how best to hit Shar where it really hurt the most. Of course he'd told her all of this already, but he wasn't really sure if the neo-goddess took his words to heart. Their discussion afterwards had been rather short, and she hadn't spoken with him since. That was two days ago. After three weeks of travelling together, he still wasn't able to read her mercurial moods all that well.
And yet they continued their quiet exodus from Sembia, taking them further westward, into the eastern reaches of Cormyr. There was no hurry to their pace, and time itself seemed to speed up and slow down at odd intervals as they traveled. There was a vague sense of need in Ranma-chan calling her to the northwest, but there was no true urgency backing the desire. El speculated that it was her other soul fragment calling out to her. He watched her worriedly, and recognized immediately that something was terribly wrong, due to the sudden expression of terror that etched itself across her face. Her acolytes froze up behind her, mirroring her expression.
"Ranma?" He whispered. "What is it?"
"They've bound him!" She growled, clutching at her wrists. "They've bound a piece of him, and…." She trailed off as a look of pure horror overcame her.
That was when he felt it; a small, but rapid, bending suction within the Weave that left him feeling light headed and weak.
Ranma-chan and Koneko-chan screamed in agony, and fell to the ground. And reality unraveled around them. El swore, turning the air blue, and began dragging Phaele, Valor, and the few acolytes as far from the pair as possible. The very fabric of the world warped around the fallen goddesses, and Elminster feared that another Time of Troubles was at hand. Had he been more observant, he would have seen two other beings appear at the edge of his awareness.
Sharess stood beside her companions, the elven god Shevarash, Selune, and Angharrah. The quartet of divinities worked quickly to contain the warping of the fabric of reality around the Weavebender. It was an odd companionship, but she could not help but feel that the fit was right. Even now, standing as she was before the fragmented godling, she knew that the paths she was walking were the correct ones.
Long had she denied herself the pleasure of her revenge against Shar, for her imprisonment; and upon being approached by the elven god of revenge, it was a simple choice to follow him. Shar had wronged her, and he had felt her need calling to him. He offered Sharess the opportunity for sweet, sweet, vengeance. How could she deny herself such an exquisite experience any longer? Now, she looked down upon a kindred spirit; someone who knew and understood the feel of Shar's depredations.
Both of the aspects of Ranma looked up at them pleadingly. Shevarash made no move to aid or comfort the godling while Selune and Angharradh were intent on maintaining the barrier. The goddess of sensual fulfillment snorted and moved forward, through the mystical barrier and gathered the suffering pair into her arms.
"Break away from him for a time, sisters." She whispered. "Break away and ground yourselves once more."
"Can't." The red-haired elven woman hissed. "Can't lose him."
"Lose him?" Sharess laughed. "Child, trust in the bonds you've created. Open your eyes to where he is."
"How?" She demanded.
"Follow the pain back to its source."
Sharess watched as the red-head closed her eyes. It took very little time for the pain to drain from Ranma's face, only to be replaced by white hot fury.
"What do you see?" Shevarash voice was barely more than a harsh whisper.
"Defilers!" Koneko-chan's voice hissed. "They bind him with the bones of another god!"
The elven deity snarled and the air darkened around him, causing the mortals to fall to their faces in fear.
"Can you see where they are?" Selune prodded.
"Yesss." The pair growled.
"Then let us go to them." Sharess lifted the pair and noted that reality abruptly snapped back into its natural order as Ranma's soul fragments had something new to focus on. They were held back by the elven god, who cut his left palm with an obsidian dagger. He stepped before them and painted their brows in his blood, sanctioning them.
"Furies, I name thee." Shevarash intoned, touching Selune. "Unceasing."
"Grudging." Angharradh smiled eagerly.
"Avenging." Sharess felt the power of…something surge through her.
"Justice." Ranma's and Koneko-chan's brows glowed brightly, and from the way that they stood on without her aid, Sharess knew that they had been empowered too.
"Loose thy rage and let the blood of the defiler run cold, that justice might be served and vengeance appeased."
Ranma-chan, face etched with her wrath, reached out her hand and literally ripped a tear in reality. The sounds of screams echoed from the hole. She turned to her mortal followers and gestured to them.
"You are to be witnesses this day." Her ire was frigid and her voice arctic. "Let justice be served upon those that trespass."
Sharess shivered at the power and authority that radiated from the godling. It dwarfed her own by an order of magnitude, and reminded her of her place in the cosmos. Ranma-chan did not look back as she stepped through the tear and into the chaos.
She didn't need to.
It made Sharess wonder, if perhaps the godling might not entertain the notion of a celebration feast once Shar had been dealt with. If the Weavebender was amendable to the idea, perhaps Sharess might also entice the godling to indulge in other…pursuits. She set aside the thoughts as Shar stepped through the makeshift portal behind Ranma's faithful. There would be time enough for celebrations after the pleasure of this battle was done. She looked to Shevarash and received a nod in return. She kissed him brazenly as she danced through the rip in space and time. She was happy to note that she'd left the emo elf-god more than a little bewildered.
She laughed freely and embraced the rage she'd felt over her imprisonment. The time had finally come, and Shar was going to feel the same sense of hopelessness and loss that she had inflicted on Sharess.
The battle of Tellum's Plain was a typical conflict in every way. There were beheadings, involuntary amputations, disembowelments, eye gouging, and of course very nasty splinters. Magic even had a grudging role in the battle, but there was very little finesse in the use of it – if Serenity had seen one fireball explode, she'd seen them all. The hair pulling and name calling towards the end seemed rather childish and silly, but the impromptu mud wrestling was…unexpectedly pleasant. Still, Serenity could say with calm assurance that she pretty much hated every minute spent watching the blood, gore, and guts fly. She stomached it though, if only because of her tutor.
Susan had spent the entire battle staring in that detached, uninterested way, as if the whole life and death struggle playing out below her was a mundane, common, everyday occurrence. When Serenity had questioned her on how the woman could stand to watch such wholesale slaughter and violence, Susan simply pointed to her eyes and instructed Serenity to LOOK at the battle anew. Understanding the instruction, Serenity stopped looking at the surface and tried to see underneath it all. Doing so opened a whole new perspective to the Silver Princes. Gone were the piercing arrows and the bloody lances, and in their place were the motives and purposes of those battling.
She saw men seeking glory and fame, where others were defending that which was precious to them; others fought for money, while many were there simply to escape the nagging of their wives and the monotony of milking cows or weeding fields. That had surprised her. She saw plainly one man's less than wholesome motives, and thoroughly cheered when a stray swing of a Morningstar castrated him.
When she LOOKED at the magic being thrown, she was surprised at just how…bored…it was. The energy itself seemed to actually yawn at times due to the aggressive repetition and abuse it was being put to. It was vulgar and it even looked angry at times at the wizards and sorcerers that were tarnishing its magnificence with such vain and mundane uses. She also noted with some surprise that some of the energy seemed to call out to her, asking to be put to better use.
It was midway through the battle that a familiar figure made an appearance. Kelemvor said nothing to her beyond a slight tilt of the head, and a warm smile. Instead he chose to greet Susan with a fond embrace, and spent the rest of the conflict in quiet conference with the white haired woman.
Serenity wasn't certain how to feel about his apparent dismissal, but the words of their last meeting played out in her mind.
"Death is a natural thing, Daughter of Mysteries. It is the prescribed end of all life, the great inevitability. Why do you fight it so?"
She didn't answer right away, trying to sift through and center all of her emotions into a coherent answer.
"Because it makes people suffer."
"If that is true, then why do you not battle as fiercely against life as well?" Serenity just looked up at Kelemvor blankly. "Life is the definition of suffering, Serenity. Everyday is one more battle in a constant war against suffering. Mortality's struggles are defined by the suffering they overcome. Death is not the end of suffering, but it is a respite from the struggle."
She looked at the cooling body of the giant not far off and sighed.
"I don't understand."
"You will, in time." He kissed her forehead.
"What if I don't want to?" She asked.
"What you desire is not necessarily what you need. You will understand death's purpose in time." He dried her tears with his thumb. "Until then, go with my blessing and think on my words."
She hadn't thought overmuch on those words until now. To be charitable, she hadn't exactly had much time to ponder them. For that, she felt extreme guilt. Broan the Giant had died because she had lost her temper. The knowledge of that death had been buried deep and forgotten beneath the avalanche of other pressing experiences; but now that she was facing Kelemvor again, it all came rushing back to her with a vengeance.
Serenity fell to her knees as the pain and unresolved guilt washed over her like a merciless tsunami. Her attendants were at her side immediately, questioning her and comforting her in turn. It wasn't until Susan shooed them away, with Kelemvor standing silently behind her that Serenity managed any semblance of control over herself.
"Are you finished?" Susan's voice was patient and filled with just the requisite amount of concern to fill a thimble. Serenity blinked up at her blankly, only to be hauled back to her feet. "You're making a scene."
This too was delivered with the requisite amount of patience due a child who was embarrassing their parent in the middle of a market.
"I killed someone." Serenity confessed miserably.
"Truly?" If there was a tone to describe the "Welcome to the club, here's your name tag and toaster iron." sentiment, Susan's voice assuredly had it mastered.
"More than just the one, truthfully." Kelemvor added helpfully.
The look Susan threw his way could have killed someone, if they weren't the local anthropomorphic personification of Death already. Kelemvor either missed the look or unwisely chose to ignore it as he continued merrily on, describing Serenity's list of kills.
"The giant's death seems to have traumatized her more than the goblins, or that Goruch fellow."
Serenity looked up, startled at the mention of the other deaths. Memories of the tunnels beneath the Plains of Huigan flooded her mind, reminding her of the creatures she'd blasted in her panic. The experience with that monster Goruch was relived and others besides. All her battles with the senshi and the youma they had defeated…she'd killed them all. She might not have ended all the lives herself, but her decisions had. The very thought made her pitch over onto her knees again and vomit.
The glare Susan shot her great-uncle wasn't escapable this time, and Kelemvor found himself flinching for the first time since he'd ascended.
"I'm deeply sorry, Susan." He winced as her glare became more intense. "I mean to say…I'm sorry that I don't think I am the correct choice for what you had in mind. Your grandfather would be better suited for the role, or perhaps another that I know of."
"On that, Uncle, we can agree." Susan mumbled something about insensitive morons that everyone chose to ignore. She motioned for Ulin to help Serenity in her place. "Let's speak over there."
The pair retired a ways away from Serenity and her handmaidens, leaving the Silver Princess to languish in her guilt and self-pity. Ulin whispered meaningless platitudes in her ear while wiping her mouth and chin. Serenity couldn't find the energy to care. She felt forever soiled and consumed by a taint so deep, she wondered if she could ever hope to be clean again.
The bored magic that had been listlessly meandering around the battlefield sensed her growing need to escape the pain and perked up. She felt its approach, and likened it to a dancing zephyr. It was eager to finally have a purpose worthy of its magnificence. Susan looked up in alarm as the magic answer Serenity's desire.
Where? The concept was clear in her mind.
"Away from the pain." She whispered, yearning for a shoulder to cry on and wishing for nothing more than to be among familiar faces.
The call came too late, as the blood of her birthright gave the magic form and purpose. There was no portal, or tear in space and time; nor was there any explosive display of colors. One minute Serenity was there, atop the rise overlooking the battlefield, and the next she simply wasn't.
If her mind had been cognizant of what the magic had done, she would have been truly amazed at what her intent and need had accomplished. In the blink of an eye, she had crossed the myriad of dimensional thresholds and arrived in a place that held absolutely no resemblance to Faerun. The magic gloried in its accomplishment. It had done the impossible and the masterpiece it had wrought was just now being acknowledged by its Mistress. Serenity felt a surge of pride and an eager desire for praise from the arcane energies that had travelled with her across the divide. It was like a puppy that had fetched its first paper.
She shook her head and opened her eyes, turning her attention to her surroundings. At the familiar surroundings she nearly passed out.
"Mugen Gakuen…" She clenched her skirt tightly at the sight of the building where Pharaoh 90 had been sealed away. A feeling of dread welled in her as the being's familiar dark presence pulsed with increasing strength somewhere in the upper levels of the building before her.
"So you're my plot bunny for this dream, eh?" A rich voice spoke quietly from beside her. Serenity spun quickly, a spell on her lips. "I have to admit that you're much better looking than the usual fellow. I wonder if my subconscious is trying to tell me something? Then again, I suppose I'm long over due for this kind of dream…aren't I?"
The man was non-descript in the extreme. Serenity would have been hard pressed to pick him out of a crowd. There was a magical patchwork shroud dancing around him, and she started to pick it apart, LOOKING beneath each layer to uncover another Truth about the being before her. Each layer was stripped away until she came to the essence of the man before her. He was a young man her age with beautiful green eyes, messy black hair, and a…fatigue…about him. Oh, and he just happened to be intimately tied to Death in the most curious fashion. She would have said that it was a reluctant sense of inevitability, but at the same time he embraced it as if it was all the most natural thing in the world.
"I can't say that the ears match the wardrobe though. I wonder what dreaming about a Bunny Girl wearing sensible clothing means?"
Serenity blinked and then touched the top of her head, finding a set of faux rabbit ears protruding from a head band on her head. The magic prancing around her snickered gleefully at the play on her old name and identity. She narrowed her eyes and mentally spanked the eldritch energies.
"It means that you have some sense of self preservation, not to objectify women even in your dreams." Serenity growled.
"That would be the logical thing." The being nodded. "But, according to Kara and Henchgirl, I don't have a sense of self preservation. That being said, I think a change in wardrobe is called for."
A wand materialized in the being's hand and, before Serenity could do or say anything, her sensible clothing became a skimpy white bikini, with miniscule coverage and an uncomfortable thong, complete with fluffy tail in the appropriate place. The ears became real too, much to her added ire. She growled as the being nodded and smiled.
"Much better. Yes, I think from now on you will be the template for all my plot bunnies."
Twin balls of incandescent, eldritch white fire erupted in Serenity's palms causing the man before her to flinch in a very pleasing way. She hissed very menacingly and took a step forward. He took a step back. They repeated the opening steps to the dance twice more before the man took off running.
She made it five steps after him before a wave of ungodly pain tore through her body and soul. Her body locked up and fell to the hard flagstones of Mugen Gakuen's courtyard with a heavy bounce. She screamed until her voice was raw, and clawed at the stone until her fingers bled. Yet the agony persisted. It wasn't until a flash of red light washed over her that she felt some sense of relief. But, even then, the echoes persisted in her dreams; nightmares of her pig-tailed love, chained and suffering at the hands of shadows. The connection between them grew thin and, faint though it was, she sent all of her love shooting to him. The answering sensation of peace and comfort eased her mind as she drifted into unconsciousness.
Mr. Black looked down at the bruised and bloody form of the admittedly sexy bunny girl and sighed. Even in his dreams he couldn't escape weird stuff that put his life in jeopardy. Henchgirl was right; he didn't have any sense of self preservation.
He sighed and healed the girl before restoring her modesty. The ears and tail he left alone though. They just added something special to the overall package. Lifting her over her shoulder, he looked towards the top of the building and sighed at the evil emanations that he could feel pulsing there.
"Alright. 'Call to Adventure'…check. Meet the damsel-slash-future-love-interest-who-strangely-isn't-my-significant-other…check. Awkward happenings to promote sexual tension in the future…check. Meet the bad guy…"
He looked up at the buildings where the press of doom was coming from.
"…sort of. Bugger this. I'm skipping to the beat down so I can get to the good stuff."
The man disappeared with a pop, leaving the courtyard of Mugen Gakuen empty.
Waterdeep, Upper Dock Ward
The inn was the most widely-known and easily accessible entrance to Undermountain known to the general public. Most of those that made use of it were either desperate to escape the city or deranged to think themselves prepared to meet Halaster head on. Some were delusional enough to believe that they could part the mad, immortal wizard from his treasures with little to no sacrifice involved. But one thing was commonly shared by all those that dared use the Portal as their access point to the dark pathways beneath the City of Splendors – they were all driven.
The Portal, at first glance, was rambling, dingy, building of smoothly carved pillars. The interior was rich and mirrored the outside accents with more smooth wood columns and dark paneling. Its walls were strewn with a plethora of blue tapestries and the smell of spilt ale and wood dust was heavy in the air. It stood two doors down from The Empty Keg tavern, right next to Mother Salinka's House of Pleasure. This seemed to make an odd sort of sense to Keiichi. Those facing their mortality would no doubt find themselves desiring a stout drink and a night of living before challenging the labyrinth below. He felt inclined to pursue neither, but both businesses seemed to be doing well for themselves. His focus was Durnan, and anyone that had recently returned from the guts of the dungeon.
Upon entering the inn's doors, Keiichi's senses were almost overwhelmed by the layered smells and lingering traces of food, alcohol, and sweat. The tang of smoky fires and tobacco danced through the scents, leaving an odd taste in Keiichi's mouth. The first sight that greeted him upon entering the Tap Room was the inn's namesake; a wide well that acted as the entrance to Undermountain. This yawning portal was surrounded by a low wall and ever burning magical torches were ensconced on the pillars that supported a massive winch and pulley apparatus that presumably lowered the moderate sized wooden platform the one hundred and forty some-odd feet into the dungeon. The platform itself looked relatively sturdy; however, Keiichi calculated that the large silk rope used to do the lowering would barely hold the weight of two people. There would be absolutely no way that the contraption would withstand Kazuki-chan's weight.
That was going to a minor problem to resolve. He just hoped Durnan would be amenable to making a few changes.
"Welcome to the Yawning Portal!" The greeting was energetic and full of warmth. The author of the salutation was a young woman, no older than sixteen or seventeen by the look of her, with pretty dirty blond hair and bright brown eyes. "How can I serve you this day?"
"Thank you for the welcome, Miss…"
"Miss Nhaera." Keiichi nodded and smiled. "I'm looking to speak with a man named Durnan. I was told that he is the owner of the inn."
"You heard right, sir. Grandpa's been running the inn for over seventy years now!"
"Seventy years?" Ruthart couldn't keep the awe from his voice.
"Aye. He'll be in the back prepping for the evening's business. Head over to the bar and I'll fetch him for you."
"Thank you, Miss Nhaera."
"Don't thank me, order something from the tap instead!" Her grin was cheeky, and Keiichi couldn't help but be reminded of his sister Megumi.
He led the group over to the bar and followed Nhaera's instructions, ordering themselves a tankard and allowed themselves to be talked into a light lunch as well by the pretty barmaid that was minding the room. It took about twenty minutes for Durnan to finally make his appearance, but when he finally did, Keiichi could honestly say that the man didn't look to be in his nineties as the stories had reported. For a man approaching a hundred years of age, the white-haired Durnan was certainly a powerful presence. His muscles were still chorded and bulged like cannon balls as he wiped his hands with a grey rag that disappeared into the pocket of his equally grey apron. Keiichi looked between the man and the massive greatsword that hung among the racks of mugs and bottles. It was no wonder that few made trouble in the inn, and Keiichi knew that those who were dim enough to push their luck with the man would very likely live to regret it.
"Nhaera said there were people lookin' ta speak wi' me. Would ye be them?"
Keiichi stood and held out his hand in greeting.
"Yes, Mister Durnan. I am Keiichi Morisato, and these are my companions Sister Maerdith of Ohgma and Ruthart Gambool."
Durnan accepted the offered hand and raised an eyebrow at the strength he found there. Maerdith and Ruthart mimicked Keiichi's lead and the quartet settled onto the stools.
"How can I be of service then?"
"Plainly put? I seek information on surviving Undermountain."
"A simple task, Lad. Don't set foot in the place."
"Would that I had another choice, Mister Durnan. Unfortunately, I've been set a quest, and the only way to reach the place I need to be in a few very short days, lies at the very heart of Halaster's playground. Thus the need for help in navigating its challenges."
"The gods must hate ye then lad. Either that or thou art a fool and then some for even entertaining the idea of delving the Undermountain."
"I've been called worse." Keiichi smiled.
"If I might be so bold to ask, what drives this quest o'yer's? It obviously isn't wealth. Ye don't feel the type ta care over much for gold and riches. Tis it fame then, the glory of walking into the ever-changing hell and coming out alive? Or perhaps a demonstration of your bravery?"
"None of those." Keiichi looked into the half full tankard and sighed. When he didn't immediately continue, Ruthart took up the tale.
"Lord Keiichi is to meet the father of his beloved. The only way to reach the place of the meeting is through a portal in Undermountain."
"Love drives ye?" Durnan snorted. The mockery earned him a stinging snap from a wet bar rag from the woman behind the counter and a scowl from the other women throughout the room. The inn keeper rubbed the already bruising welt and shook his head. "As I said, Lad. The gods must hate ye."
"No, Master Durnan. A goddess loves him." Maerdith whispered wistfully. "And it is because of that love that Lord Keiichi looks to move heaven and earth to be by her side."
"No woman is worth Undermountain, Boy. Step away from yer heart and look at the dangers that are about to swallow you."
Keiichi refused to look up from his tankard. Maerdith reached out and gripped his forearm affectionately.
"Were she a woman, Master Durnan, I would agree. But I have stood before the Norn of the Present, and I say this to you frankly – she is a goddess as certainly as Ohgma, Deneir, or Selune."
"So this be some sort of religious quest then? Proof of yer faith?"
"Not so much, Master Durnan." Keiichi whispered. "I seek her hand in marriage. To earn that blessing, I need to present myself to her Father in the timeframe that He has set me. The only path I can find, begins at the end of Halaster's labyrinth. To that end, I will set myself against the madman in order to meet the demands set before me. Nothing will stand in my way."
Durnan and the rest of the people in the Tap Room, staff and patron alike, could only stare at Keiichi in silence after his declaration. It took some time for the room to regain their senses.
"I know you think me insane, Master Durnan." Keiichi sighed. "That is fine, as it has no true bearing on my quest. What I came here looking for, is simply information. If you require compensation for your time and knowledge, then I will willingly offer a fair price to repay you."
Durnan waved off the boy's offer, under duress and the weighted stares of every teary-eyed female in the room.
"Spend some money on meals here for the next two nights and I'll tell ye what I know, Lad." This earned a collective growl from the women scattered throughout the room, but Durnan was Durnan. If he was going to spend his time educating the boy, the least he could do was give the inn a little income. He shrugged. "I shouldn't think it would help overmuch since Halaster bores easily and changes things around. But, mayhap I'll be able to give ye enough insight into the experiences of meself and others to get ye out alive."
"None needed. Now then, the first thing ye will find yourself needing is a Company."
"An adventuring company, Lad." Durnan sighed and motioned for the woman behind the counter to fill a tankard for him. "The more bodies between you and Halaster, the more likely you are to get what yer after."
"I can't in good conscience ask anyone else to risk themselves."
"That'd be yer choice, Lad. But know that there are dangers down there in the dark that ye will face that need the deft touch of a professional; traps and locks, mystic barriers that require magical keys, undead that can only be driven away or faced by servants of the divine. If ye go it alone, then ye will last a few hours at best."
"What would you suggest?" Keiichi sighed, producing a notebook and began jotting notes.
"Well, a company generally has between five and twelve members. It depends entirely on the money pouch funding the expedition. Food and equipment are expensive when outfitting, but the salary and the cut of the spoils generally cost more. Challenging Undermountain will break you even before ye set foot below, if yer not mindful."
He took a long pull from his tankard and frowned.
"As for the party itself…a Trap Runner is paramount. A pair of them would be best, if only to have a back up once the first gets overconfident. Halaster is a cunning bastard, and shows it without even having to cast a spell. I've a few contacts that I can put ye in touch with; whether they accept the call or not is their business. Second, a pair of dedicated healers at the very least, and enough equipment to heal a small town wouldn't be amiss. Yer going to run into injuries the like ye've never dreamed of; illnesses that rot the flesh, poisons from beast and trap alike that will kill in seconds, and battle wounds that will bleed a man out if not tended right away."
Keiichi nodded and scribbled away. Ruthart and Maerdith were rapidly writing out their own lists.
"Two or three swordsmen and shields men are going to be a good investment. Halaster likes his monsters, and so having a couple monster hunters on staff will be a good thing. I would recommend dwarves if ye can convince the little blighters. They've a good nose for the dangers o' bein' underground, and they've a knack for ferretin' out secret ways in the cut of the stones. Elves tend ta get claustrophobic real quick, but are a good second choice if ye can't have a dwarf."
"Last, ye need a Spell Slinger or four. The more knowledgeable the better, but don't put too much faith in them outthinking Halaster. The only man I ever met that could match him was Elminster of Shadowdale, and getting the Old Mage into Undermountain is about as likely as pulling the stars from the skies. That said, let me repeat: ye need a wizard or at the very least a student of the arcane. Halaster has layered his playground with so many magic traps and enslaved creatures that can only be harmed by arcane spells. Ye'll need someone that can deal with those challenges and potentially be able to get ye clear of the dangers that ye can't face. I'll explain more about that later. With me so far?"
Keiichi nodded and continued to take notes.
"Now then, once ye've hired the skilled hands, yer going to need to get yerself an official charter from the city. Shouldn't be too hard. I'll go over the places ye need to go in a moment."
"Why a charter?" Keiichi asked.
"A number of reasons, the most important being identification. Halaster likes his portals, so people tend ta enter Undermountain here, and end up in any number of other places. A charter gives a company more than a bit of credibility when dealing with the governments of other cities. Think of it as a sponsorship from Waterdeep herself. If you're official, then it makes a number of headaches disappear."
"Also, the charter acts as an official contract between the members o' the company. Rights, privileges, cuts of the collective pie taken in…the charter lines it all out, along with burial instructions, next of kin, and any other business that needs dealing with. If ye take the time to fill out the paperwork, other governments acknowledge that yer serious enough not ta cause too many problems for them."
"Makes sense." Keiichi nodded.
"Now then, let's talk equipment…"
The pair became a fixture of the bar for the next two days; Durnan sharing his wisdom and Keiichi dutifully noting it down. News of the Innovator's quest spread like wildfire throughout the city within hours of Keiichi arriving at the Portal, and soon there were others sharing their advice as well. Durnan helped Keiichi make sense of it all, and even helped him negotiate with those that came looking to join him in his descent into the dungeon. The company formed fairly quickly, and Ruthart was given the task of outfitting them while Maerdith helped Keiichi interview the candidates. By midmorning of the third day, nine souls had signed up and the party was ready and waiting in rooms taken out at the Portal.
Keiichi however chose to spend the rest of the day at the temple gathering the supplies he would need and crafting a few things he felt pushed to make. Plans were made for Kazuki-chan with Durnan, in the form of a chain and a series of secondary winches that would be erected and taken down by the temple staff. Durnan and the Portal were exempted from any and all charges for goods and services provided by the Innovator's faithful. Keiichi had become good friends with Durnan, and friends weren't cared for, not fleeced.
By the time he finally made it to the Yawning Portal, the streets were filled with onlookers and people waiting to see the young fool who wanted to marry a goddess. Jeers and taunts were thrown at him, but Keiichi ignored them all in favor of fiddling with the computerized cartographer he'd rigged. If nothing else, they wouldn't get too lost…unless of course Halaster decided to change things behind them as they went. Even then, Keiichi should have a live feed of any changes made. That alone was going to increase their chances of survival by quite a bit. He stood by as Kazuki-chan was fitted with his chain looking over the nine male and females of varied races that had signed on to accompany him into the depths.
Jaster of Shaundakul, the elected leader of the party after Keiichi, stood nearby checking equipment and ensuring that everything was moving smoothly. The priest of the Helping Hand was broad shouldered and had an easy smile. Beside him Tamlith Ghuir, the Blue Witch, cast an enchantment over a number of stones. She was Jaster's second, and one of the few people who had run the Undermountain and survived. Her reasons for delving the dungeon were pointed. She'd lost her lover and sister to the labyrinth, and she hoped to either beat the dungeon or die trying.
A pair of dwarven twins and their lovers rounded out the trap runners and the shields. Galen, Piffen, Dole, and Fiona were intimidating and gruff. Yet, when confronted with his quest, they felt drawn to seeing him through. Uster Sulla, another student of magic came next. A half-elf, Uster, was an acolyte of the Weavebender, a relatively new religion that espoused a melding of combat and magic. He named himself a Weave Dancer, and seemed very proficient when he faced off against one of Durnan's associates. Tamlith seemed both intrigued and affronted by the young man, but they kept their interactions professional. Isma of Sune and Derrick Brandle of Torm rounded out the party. Both the clerics arrived together, insisting that they be included in the party. When asked why, they simply said they were needed. The burning in Keiichi's heart told him that they were right. He didn't question their motives further.
"I should be going with you." Maerdith whispered crossly as she double checked his pack and his chain mail jerkin.
"No. You are needed here."
"I don't know yet. But that's what my instincts are telling me."
"I'm supposed to be your chronicler, Keiichi Morisato." Keiichi pressed his fingertips to her mouth, stopping her from continuing.
"I met a friend of yours before we left Candlekeep. He told me that I was blind not to see what was right in front of my face." Keiichi smiled and pushed a strand of her hair behind her ear. She leaned into his touch. "I cannot love you like you love me, Maerdith. My heart belongs now and forever to Belldandy. But that doesn't mean that I do not love you. This path I walk is not for you. I will not be returning from the depths of Undermountain."
She started to protest.
"I will come by another way, when my interview is done." He pressed his forehead against hers and looked her in the eye. "My question to you Maerdith, is will you be here waiting for my return?"
Tears began streaming down her cheeks and she grabbed his face and kissed him passionately. He did not return the gesture, but when she pulled away he kissed her right above the eyes.
"Yes. I'll be waiting." She murmured.
"Good. Listen, you'll hear what needs to be done. And when you hear the call, I'll need you to come running. Understand?"
"Ohgma bless and keep you, Maerdith."
"You as well, Morisato Keiichi."
He watched her stumble away, disappearing into the burgeoning crowd. Ruthart pushed next to his elbow and waited silently.
"Not going to make any last requests?"
"Will it change your mind?"
"Then I'd rather not waste the air."
"Waste not, want not." Keiichi grinned, patting the gnome lightly on the back. Ruthart smiled sadly in return. "Guard her Ruthart. Look after her and help her through this. She's going to need a friend or two in the next few days."
"I will. Don't worry." He nodded. "You will be coming back to us, won't you Master Keiichi?"
"I plan to, Ruthart. Until then, you're going to be my Voice. Remember that the needs of the many, outweigh the needs of the few or the one."
"Then why are you doing this?" The gnome demanded. "We need you here. The temple is just getting off the ground. We need your guidance!"
"This is where I'm drawn, Ruthart. As I am to you, She is to me. Without her, I am useless to the world."
Ruthart sighed and nodded.
"I think I understand."
"You will someday, Master Gambool. Of that I am certain." He clasped hands with the young gnome and sent him to find and comfort Maerdith. Then he turned to his mechanical son. "Are you ready, Kazuki-chan?"
"Yes, sir!" Steam vented from the bottom of his head and Keiichi laughed. "Father?"
"Do I get to go with you to meet, Momma's dad?"
"No, Kazuki-chan. You have a very important job; one that only you can accomplish."
"What's that?" He asked eagerly.
"Do you see these people, son?" Kazuki-chan nodded. "I need you to protect them. Keep them alive and bring them out of Undermountain alive, at all costs. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir!" He saluted, rattling his chains loudly and drawing worried looks from all those around him. Keiichi patted his massive leg affectionately and moved over to Jaster and Tamlith. A sudden sense of incessant tugging pulled on his heart, and his mind was suddenly awash with ideas. He grinned impishly and hastened closer to his party leaders.
"We're about ready to depart, Master Keiichi." The large man said.
"Good." He nodded. "I wanted to explain a slight change in plans before we descend."
"Changing plans even before we enter Halaster's Hell, Master Keiichi?" Tamlith shook her head. Keiichi held up a hand to forestall her rebuke.
"Bear with me, Mistress Ghuir. I fully acknowledge that we cannot hope to beat Halaster at his own game. Therefore I propose introducing him to a different challenge. One that I hope will intrigue him enough to ensure your survival and safety."
"And what is this challenge you propose?" Jaster asked curiously.
"A race." At their bewildered expressions, he leaned over the most recent maps that they'd been able to acquire and laid out his plan. It was bold, it was just this side of mad, but it was totally unexpected. Halaster at the very least wouldn't be expecting the gambit. They left three hours later than they'd planned on, since Keiichi and many of the denizens of the temple needed the extra time to put together some sturdy cars that would trail behind Kazuki-chan in a train. It was a first in the history of the Yawning Portal, and in many cases the most memorable expedition in recent memory.
No one was going into the dungeon for fame or fortune. They were going in for love. Thus, when the last member of the Company of the Heart disappeared down the massive well, and the ropes and chains were hoisted out of the pit, Durnan bought the gathered crowd a round much to their pleasure. He toasted the Company's bravery and offered a prayer to whatever gods might be listening that those brave souls might return hale and whole. Unbeknownst to him, there were three women standing near Maerdith, comforting the young priestess that heard that plea. Each of them smiled and nodded to one another as they gently held the young woman.
Keiichi might be off limits, but they'd just been given a door to make certain that these other brave souls came out of this adventure alive.
If there was one certainty about Ranma Saotome, male or female, it was this: he or she was unconquerable. It didn't matter how much life crapped on him, it didn't matter how many troubles Genma threw her way – somehow, and in some way, Ranma would come out on top. His methods were often messy. Her solutions often caused more trouble than they solved in the long run. But the one constant in Ranma's core was the insurmountable will that drove the martial artist to succeed.
This is what set him apart from the rest of Creation.
He never gave up and never accepted anything less that his desired results. He might suffer the occasional setback, but he never truly failed at anything he set his mind to. He growled as Shar made her appearance, walking from the darkness, her body sheathed in stars and the void.
"Lo, how the Arrogant falter." The goddess of loss glided, all rolling hips and curves; oozing sensuality and sex. "How do you like your chains, godling? T'Nuinthor, Lord of Prisons, was once a lover of mine, until he looked above his station. This was his reward. Delicious irony is it not?"
"Come a little closer and I'll show you irony, bitch."
"Your defiance is crude." She taunted. "You have no style."
"I got plenty of styles, Lady. Let me free and I'll show you each and every one of them."
"Tempting offer…" She glided around his back and let her hands trail along his flank. Ranma flipped up and over backwards with blinding speed, intent on wrapping his legs around her throat. She laughed and disappeared in a puff of black smoke. "So much stamina! Even with them draining all of your power! I am so looking forward to breaking you."
"Lady, You can't break me. Better than you have tried."
"YOU DARE!" She was suddenly in his face, clutching his throat and lifting his feet fully from the ground. "YOU DARE TO COMPARE ME TO A MORTAL!"
Ranma just grinned smugly and moved. He pulled heavily on the shadows to augment his strike; and so when his kick connected with her upper thigh, Shar's avatar screamed out in agony as the leg snapped. The body fell to the ground, and Ranma pressed his follow-through forward. A blindingly fast series of kicks, channeled through a variation of the Amaguriken, worked the avatar over until the last strike connected to the being's neck, snapping it outright. The use of divine power to charge his kicks made certain that the avatar wasn't getting back up.
"IMPOSSIBLE!" The darkness around him roared. Ranma snorted.
"Bitch. That's my middle name."
Shar screeched in unholy rage and the room shook with her fury.
"You jest now, but I will see you suffer! You will know my loss!"
He felt her presence depart and rolled his neck. He looked heavenward and sighed tiredly, still feeling the drain from whatever infernal machine was beneath his feet.
"Why do you always saddle me with the psychos?"
The room and the heavens remained perfectly silent. He waited patiently, watching the door expectantly. He wasn't forced to wait long as his mirror pushed the door open.
"Did you really need to piss her off?" The real Ranma nudged the dead body on the floor with his foot. The beautiful Shadovar woman, dressed in the robes of Shar's faithful, stared up at him with empty eyes.
"I was getting bored." The clone shrugged. "Besides you would have done the same thing, so quit giving me crap."
"Yeah. Yeah. Hold out your hands."
The clone did as asked and Ranma reached out and tapped them with a finger. They exploded in a puff of dust and bone splinters. The clone rubbed its wrists and popped his shoulders. He had a decidedly eager gleam in his eyes.
"So what happened? You cut me off?"
"Had to. They were sucking me dry."
"And the Wonder Twins?"
"One popped with all the feedback. The other's tracking Sefaril."
"Well? What are we waiting for? Let's go bust some heads!"
"You really think I'm going to a bunch of evil pricks turn me into some sort of damn battery and let it slide?" He slapped the clone upside the head causing it to pop and the energy to be reabsorbed. He was filled with sensations and memories, and a fury that seriously needed an outlet.
The cold rage that now encompassed him as he tracked his other clone and, through him, the rest of his precious people, pulled the residual enchantments from the very walls of the city, making the very stone brittle and worn. He stormed upward, bounding from landing to landing blindingly fast. And in his passing, the stone aged and crumbled to dust. He erupted from the belly of the city with a sonic boom that collapsed the great hall the he'd been imprisoned under.
He didn't pause in his haste. A sudden panicked vision of the very pregnant Sefaril tied to post, surrounded by a protective ring of his students pressed him to move faster. Aelin, Ked, and Ethalliandra, were in the middle of some arena and that pissed him off even more. The halls and streets he tore through turned to dust, as he sucked the ambient magic from the rest of the city to replenish his own flagging reserves. The many inhabitants not in the coliseum were left to scramble for cover. Those poor few Shadovar that tried to raise an alarm were silenced with extreme prejudice, while those brave enough to stand against him were simply shattered.
He was close now. The other clone was unable to breach the barrier that surrounded the floor of the arena, so Ranma reabsorbed him. He could feel Aelin's worry for Sefaril, Ked, and Ethalliandra. The first he could generally feel, but she was vague and fuzzy. That concerned him more than he'd ever admit. Ked and Ethalliandra were too focused for his comfort. The edge of their emotions was sharp and harrowed, as if they were being pressed. Were they losing whatever battle they were fighting? No, there was no panic or true distress in them. It was more adrenaline and determination than fear.
He could see a great coliseum in the distance and growled. The streets were too slow. Time to take the high road. He leapt, taking to the roof tops, ignoring the fact that every time his foot touched a building's roof the magic sustaining it was added to his already powerful reserves. That each building imploded as soon as his foot left it was also ignored. He was only focused on getting to the arena before it was too late.
The gate guardians at the coliseum were mowed down by two very invisible and very large and deadly vacuum blades. Since he'd fired them off well before he'd come in sight of the poor fools, they were dead long before he entered the stadium itself. He could hear Sefaril's baby now. Her tiny voice called out to him in panic and fear. It drove him into a red zone. He no longer addressed the minor nuisances of those few willing to stand against him; he simply absorbed the spark of magic that gave them life as he purposely moved unerringly up through the slave tunnels.
He had built up a good head of steam, but was still smart enough to know that surprise was his friend. He couldn't feel Shar, but he knew she was still here somewhere. The improved version of the Umisen-ken would erase his presence from even her formidable senses. She wouldn't know what hit her until it was well and truly too late. But the first thing he had to be certain of was Sefaril and the baby.
His path took him up a long ramp at an impossible speed, the heavy stone gates that led to the arena loomed before him. He didn't even bother to slow as he hit them, blowing the massive rock portal completely off of its hinges. The surprised sentries screamed in his wake. Ranma, aglow with eldritch lightning soared through the air and tore the barrier apart like tissue paper, slamming into the bleachers causing the whole stadium to rock and shake. Cloaked as he was, no one could see him, but they could certainly feel him. He looked down at the sandy pit far below him, and could still see a pitched battle being fought. The spectators were not even watching the blood being spilt any longer.
Sefaril looked up at him and smiled. She could feel him! His anger flared even hotter at the thought of these people, sitting here in their comfort as monsters and men are killing each other left and right – with his Sefaril as the apparent prize! He roared and launched himself downward causing the entire section he'd been standing in to explode. The crowd screamed in fear as the massive building became a plume of dust and stone.
As fast as he was, as rapid as his magical transit was, Ranma arrived too late. A flash of steel, a spray of blood, and he saw her eyes widen. Shar's triumphant laughter echoed throughout the tumult of the arena. He landed before her and with a gesture she was free, falling into the safety of his arms.
The monsters continued fighting amongst themselves as much as they were fighting Sefaril's champions. The barrier that once acted as a control for the Shadovar puppeteers was gone, and chaos reigned supreme. The scent of blood and fire assaulted Ranma's senses as he did his best to stem to tide of Sefaril's wound. Magic welled within him, and yet for all of his power and all his skill, he couldn't heal her. He looked up and down her body, looking for whatever it was that was impeding his spells. The mark of Shar, freshly branded, and still weeping puss and blood, glared at him mockingly.
The baby's psychic cries tore at his heart and he felt both mother and daughter slipping away. Unknown to him, silver flames and tendrils of shadowy lightning began to dance along his skin. The Weave and Shadow Weave sang in his mind as he reached out to sever Shar's pull. His attempts slid off the soul curse angrily, forcing him to abandon his efforts to cut the spell. Instead he latched on to it and began pulling.
The darkness of the royal box was rent and he saw Shar being pulled into the light. He snarled and renewed his magical tug of war. The goddess of loss was surprised, but redoubled her efforts.
An ilithid latched onto Ranma's head, attempting to dominate the godling's mind. The millions of voices of Myth Dranor rose up within him, and the mindflayer screamed, and the crowd seated above, joined him, crying out in torment as the abomination projected its agony outward. The creature's head exploded, in a fine pink mist and its charred body fell to the wayside. The githyanki warrior that had been attempting to kill the ilithid burst into silver flame and fell on a Shadovar warrior. The conflagration passed from there, hungrily looking for more fuel to assuage its voracious hunger. More creatures attacked the apparently undefended target, but Ranma crushed them without blinking.
Their souls were absentmindedly absorbed by the godling, as he sought for more power to aid him in his battle with the goddess of loss. It was then that the very fabric of reality tore and Ranma-chan stepped through. He felt his soul sing in her presence and a sense of near completion filled him. Others filed through, but he paid them no heed. His eyes tracked his other half, arresting on Koneko-chan when she came into his line of sight. Yet another missing piece found, he roared with joy and victory. He pulled Shar completely from her feet, and watched in satisfaction as she hit the floor of the arena amidst the blood and sand.
Shar pushed her new avatar to its feet, worry and anger war on her face. She looked to the other figures that now ring her round about, and that fear becomes terror. The spell she suddenly loosed was meant to drain Ranma's energy and add it to her own, but rather than being overwhelmed as she expected, Ranma simply snarled. And absorbed the spell and the souls of the dead and dying. Aelin, Ked, and Ethelliandra gathered at his back as he cradled Sefaril's dying body close.
"You stole her from me Shar. You broke me."
"And you are so free from guilt and fault?" Shar hissed. "You rejected all that I had to offer you! You rejected me!"
"No Shar. I didn't." Ranma-chan stepped forward to stand beside her male aspect guardedly, resting her hand on his shoulder. Her voice faded and echoed as Ranma absorbed her back into himself. "I simply asked for you to wait until things had settled down a bit."
"LIAR!" The shadows boiled angrily. "Your heart rejected me. ME! The Goddess of Night! Again and again, you ignore my attentions! And for what? THAT?"
She stabbed a finger at Sefaril.
"Is it any wonder?" Koneko-chan growled. She butted her head up against Ranma's other shoulder and followed her sister back to where she belonged. "You're worse than Kodachi in your approach. In your pride, you assume I would be overwhelmed by your promises and innuendo. Well lady, let me tell you something – better than you have tried, and failed to win me."
Shar screamed and the shadows exploded, violently spewing forth a number of monstrosities that began attacking anything in sight. Ranma shook his head and gestured, dismissing half the creatures with but a wave. The powers at followed roared and launched yet another arcane attack outward in a violent ring. The composition of the spell caused both Selune and Angharradh to curse and duck. Sharess seeing them fall to the floor of the stadium, followed their lead. Shar ignored them in favor of watching Ranma with an insane grin on her face. Ranma tried to absorb the spell, but the moment it touched him, he screamed and lashed out in a desperate attempt to vent the poisonous energy. Everything, with the exception of Sefaril and the baby, within thirty meters of him died instantly. Ranma felt his disciples sudden sense of shock and surprise as their bodies fell to the brutalized earth. Their spirits called out to him weakly as they were literally shredded into nothingness.
"Know loss, Thief."
Grief tore through Ranma's soul as they were erased from the fabric of reality. He spun on Shar, only to see her fading from view. The other powers moved to bind her, but were too late. Her laughter echoed throughout the arena.
"Mistress!" The Prince of the Shadovar cried out. "Do not forsake us!"
Her whispered voice laughed cruelly as it faded from Toril.
"None may enslave a god for their sport, without paying the consequences."
"THIRTY FEET!" Keiichi yelled over the roar of Kazuki-chan's drill. They'd been running for six days now. After all the preparation and all the planning, Halaster had still pressed them and pushed them to the brink. Keiichi had just under one day left to meet his deadline, and they were thirty feet of rock and approximately one hundred yards from the goal. And something told Keiichi that he would end up needing that last day just to cross the small distance.
Halaster's mad glee at trying to trap them, ambush them, and otherwise prevent them from attaining their goal had forced the company to be creative in their progress. They'd by passed traps and puzzles alike, and with the aid of magic, turned tons of stone to mud in order to escape the army of monsters that Halaster had sent after them.
They hadn't evaded everything, and had been forced to fight more than a few times. Invisible assassins, undead, elementals, Drow. They'd fought them all, and come through it alive and relatively whole. Dole had lost an eye, and Fiona a finger to a particularly nasty set of traps that they couldn't dig around or under. Halaster even tried to throw a few portals in their path, but Jaster's god, and Keiichi's tech allowed them to ferret these anomalies out before they ran afoul of them.
By contractual agreement, they all vowed not to steal anything from the Mad Mage. Instead, Keiichi offered to pay them each a set sum that would allow them to live comfortably for the next five years. The sum would be a monthly payment from the temple for services rendered. This, he hoped, would insulate them a little more from the insane wizard's wrath. If anything, their dogged advancement had only piqued the wizard's interest. So much so, in fact, that he actually confronted the group…or some facsimile of the mage had confronted the group, on the fourth day of their press.
The dialogue was short, and disappointing in that Halaster had actually chastised Keiichi, like a grandfather would their impetuous grandson, for invading another man's home when asking for entrance and safe passage would have gained him all he needed and more. Keiichi was ashamed and did in fact apologize. However Halaster would have neither his apology, nor Keiichi's attempts to barter for passage. Instead, Halaster told him point blank that he started something, and now he was going to have to finish it.
From that moment forward, they moved without stopping to rest or sleep. Kazuki-chan's train had lost two cars, and the Company had taken to resting in shifts while moving forward. The running battle was fatiguing, as Halaster's minions seemed endless. It was a harsh and unrelenting, yet still they moved forward.
"TWENTY FEET!" Keiichi glanced down at the motion detector and blanched. "IN COMING! MULTIPLE SIGNATURES."
His companions set themselves, wounded and fatigued beyond endurance though they were. It is amazing how close people become amidst shared suffering. Keiichi had grown to know them through the small intimate details that he'd picked up on over the last six days. The dwarves, gruff and dirty, had the purest loyalty he'd ever encountered, outside of Bell. Jaster, even keeled and honest – Keiichi had found in him a role model. Tamlith was very much like Jaster, yet there was a cynical air about her that gave her tongue just the right amount of sharpness.
Isma and Derrik were open and friendly, and their faith unquestionable. To him, it was amazing that someone could believe in something so purely, and so deeply that it became the foundation of their lives. Their faith defined them. It maintained them. It succored them when life would otherwise overwhelm them. Even now, he could feel the power of their prayers reaching heavenward.
And last, but never least, was Uster. The Weave Dancer was optimism incarnate. He was the male version of Megumi; same attitude, same comportment, same drive. The fact that he was a living magical weapon of mass destruction, made Keiichi quietly thank every divine power that his baby sister had never found an interest in the martial arts.
"TEN FEET! SIGNATURES ARE TWENTY METERS OUT AND CLOSING!" Keiichi sighed as he looked at the motion detector. There was no doubt that they were going to be over run. He watched as Tamlith cast a spell, noting that the air itself seemed to harden five feet in front of them. Uster stepped forward to the edge of the shield and took a deep breath. No matter how many times he saw this, it always amazed Keiichi. Tamlith was looking more and more intrigued after each time too. Uster's body began to glow with a golden aura and then he cried out, the sound drowning out the noise of Kazuki-chan's drill. The familiar explosion of heat washed over them all as the massive cone of fire was launched up the earthen tube.
The flame thrower technique baked the earth around them, and Keiichi could hear screams of agony further up. He turned his head away, both in shame at the cost of life and self-loathing for placing all of them in this position. He didn't doubt his love for Belldandy, but he was seriously doubting his worthiness of her love. There was a lurch and Kazuki-chan was suddenly pushing through into a well-lit, and well appointed…tea room?
Keiichi looked back at his companions, only to find that they were no longer there. Even Kazuki-chan was missing! He panicked and looked down at his sensors. There was no reading! Keiichi cast about for something, anything that could tell him where he was. The imposing figure of Halaster stepped from a doorway that appeared from a bare wall. The man was wild, his hair unkempt and his robes tattered and awash with various unidentifiable stains. Yet, for all the madness in his appearance, the man's eyes were clear and lucid.
For the moment anyway.
"Terrible feeling isn't it?"
"What?" Keiichi felt his stomach knot and a cold feeling wash down his spine.
"To be so close to your goal, only to have it yanked from your grasp?"
Dread filled him.
"Where are the others?" He demanded.
"Safe." He motioned to the tea setting. "Forgive my rudeness, Mister Morisato. Please, sit. I will pour."
Not knowing what else to do, Keiichi complied. Halaster poured the tea, and the familiar scent of Bell's favorite blend filled his nose.
"She was here." There was no need to question it.
"I thought she was forbidden from interfering with my quest."
Halaster laughed mightily.
"Mortal, immortal, man, or god…" The wizard shook his head in bemusement. "It doesn't matter who you are, the universe revolves around you and no one else."
Halaster conjured an elaborate spread of pastries with the negligent wave of his hand.
"No Innovator, she was not here for you. The goddesses three came on the behalf of those worthies that accompanied you into my mountain. They were polite enough to ask before entering too."
Keiichi hung his head.
"Bah! Youth! Wasted on children and squandered away thoughtlessly." He shook his head and picked up a large lemon tart. He stabbed it in Keiichi's direction violently. "She brokered for their safe return to Waterdeep. Lucidity and you, for their lives and health. A fair bargain, I should think."
"Surprised? I should think so. It's always such a bittersweet sight, seeing a person sold out by someone that they love." He grinned darkly. "Her loss, my gain. I look forward to our time together, Mister Morisato. I've delved further than any living man, into the depths of magic and the workings of the universe. I have learned a thing or two about the usefulness of a godling."
"Bell wouldn't do that. She wouldn't give me to you."
"Oh, and pray tell me why? Because she loves you?" Halaster laughed coldly. "What is love, Boy? A cascade of chemical reactions that press a race to procreate! You are a fool to believe in such drivel. She sold you to save the lives of your Companionship! The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one. Isn't that what you said?"
Keiichi fell silent, watching Halaster. The flush of adrenaline was wearing off, and he was beginning to think straight again. He maintained his silence, neither eating nor drinking anything. He closed his eyes and centered himself. Bell was right, if she had done such a thing. The Company had no more business dealing with his quest.
"Nothing to say?" He snorted. "Pah! It is to be expected. I have watched you, godling. I've watched as you pranced about, relying on the gifts and sacrifices of others. Weak, arrogant, foolish child! What use are you? You refuse to stand up for your beliefs! And you cannot justify your actions."
He sneered, his face twisting in a terrible mockery of a smile. Keiichi glowered back at the man. He didn't need a damn lecture from a man that was a few sticks short of a pocky box.
"You aspire to heights that you aren't worthy of, Morisato. But do not worry, I promise to make good use of the power locked within you."
"And what makes you think I'll let you?" The young man lowered his head, hiding his face from the wizard.
"Do you truly believe you can stand against me?" Halaster looked at the young man shrewdly and then snarled. "What power do you possess to stop me? You bumble about like a ham-fisted drunkard far into his cups! You create toys to amuse the masses."
Keiichi looked away and closed his eyes. He didn't need this. He was so close to his goal, and this crazy bastard was lecturing him! Wait. He didn't need this…HE DIDN'T NEED THIS! Keiichi blotted out the Mad Mage's voice in favor of finding his center again. What did he need? He needed to make his appointment. He needed to find the Celestial Stair. He needed to leave here.
He focused everything on leaving. He focused on standing up and walking away; walking towards where he could still feel the Celestial Stair resonating against the rest of the background energies. He focused on his needs and ignored Halaster's obnoxious raging. He ignored the spells that the wizard hurled at him, and the attempts to bind him. He didn't need to be bound, he needed to get to Cennosure. He stepped, one foot in front of the other, until he felt himself ascending.
A small smile flittered across his lips as he felt his progress. He didn't count the steps, nor did he care to acknowledge the passage of time. All he was aware of was the need to do what needed to be done, for his future…for Bell's future.
"Halt!" The voice was heavy, and laden with authority. "Who seeks Cennosure?"
The young god opened his eyes and found himself faced with a giant human male, decked out in a suit of gleaming full plate armor, standing before a massive metal gate. The portal was unlike anything he'd ever imagined, covered in runes that told the history of Toril from its birth, and hinted at the possible futures that lay before it. Keiichi brought his attention back to the guardian. The being's face was completely covered by a helm. Keiichi took a deep breath and presented himself as boldly as he could; in spite of the terror he was feeling at the moment.
"I am Keiichi Morisato. Some call me the Innovator, others the Beloved of Belldandy. I was commanded to present myself at this time, and in this place."
"To what end?" The guardian demanded.
"To speak with the Almighty, to interview for the right of His daughter's hand."
The guardian lifted his helm and a blinding light forced Keiichi to shut his eyes.
"The Vigilant One sees all truth, Innovator. Your heart is laid bare before me." The guardian's voice turned warm. "I wish you success in this meeting with Those Who Sit Above All. Enter and find peace."
Keiichi bowed low to the guardian as the massive doors swung open to admit him. When they were fully open, he stepped forward on shaking legs and with a pounding heart. He'd made it. The moment was here. In just a few moments, he was going to meet with the Almighty. He was going to ask the Almighty to marry Belldandy!
How in the hell was he going to do that? It wasn't like he could just come out and say: Hey, God. Uh, see…I love your daughter…and well, I know I'm not even in the same zip code as she is, but well…I'd like to marry her.
He could just imagine it...
So, Keiichi, what makes you think you're worthy of my daughter?
Then there was that one question that all dads ask the moron that wants to marry their princesses:
What are your plans for the future? How are you going to provide for my baby girl?
What was he supposed to say to that? I plan on being an automotive engineer and maybe race a bit. Right, like that would go over…
The weight of the being's presence pressed him immediately to his knees. How could he not? Everything that he was, everything that he'd done or said or thought was laid bare before those words. What he wasn't expecting was the overwhelming sense of acceptance and unconditional love backing the words. He couldn't help himself, he started crying.
We're glad you could make it. You're right on time. Come and have a seat, we have a lot to talk about.
"Yes, Sir." He swallowed and somehow drug himself to a chair that he was certain wasn't there a second ago.
Now then, Son. I have it on good authority that you want to marry my daughter. Let's talk about that for a moment.
Keiichi swallowed, nodded, and silently wished Bell were here. Sad thing was…she wasn't. He sighed and gathered his courage yet again, then lifted his eyes. Looking the Almighty in the face, he smiled and nodded. He'd come this far, there was no way that he would back down now. He owed Belldandy that much. She was counting on him doing his best. He couldn't let her down.
Some other Earth…maybe
Serenity woke upside down with a splitting headache. The acrid smell of burnt mana and ozone filled the air, telling her more about where she was than her eyes could at the moment – a war zone. The tension of battle was heavy along side the powdered concrete in the air. She felt the body holding her shift, most notably the part that was palming her firm bottom.
"You really missed the light show." The man's voice from earlier slowly filtered into her slushy, achy, brain; as did the not so subtle grope when he rolled his shoulder. "It's been about fifteen minutes since you passed out and the little firefly pretty much kicked the bad guy's butt. Sad thing is she apparently killed the world with her last attack. I figure we have about three minutes before all hell breaks loose. It should make for an interesting sight. So, are you feeling any better?"
"Well enough to walk thank you." She said dryly. The man didn't seem to get the hint. "Can you please remove your hand from my butt and put me down? Right. Now."
"You know, for the subconscious representation of my repressed sexuality you certainly aren't playing to script." The man shook his head and set Serenity on her feet. "I wonder what it means when the girl in your dreams refuses to stay in character?"
By way of answer, Serenity kneed him in the groin as hard as she could. He dropped to the ground heavily amidst the rest of the settling rubble.
"Perhaps it means that this isn't a dream." Serenity took stock of her surroundings, and her mind was awash with memories; sadly none of them good. The man groaned at her feet as she stepped through the detritus and walked to the edge of the roof top she was on. Hotaru was nowhere to be seen, and neither was Pharaoh 90. All that she saw were the clouds of dust and fires of destruction that came in the aftermath of Saturn's Death Reborn Revolution. She didn't remember the magnitude of destruction, but she did remember the oppressive emptiness and unnatural silence that followed Saturn's attack. She still had nightmares of it on occasion.
A bright light exploded from amidst the darkness and, to her immense shock, Serenity found herself watching a younger version of herself materialize in the ether right before her. Goddess! Had she ever been that young?
The gargantuan amount of magical energy blazing from the figure before her was incredible, yet it still hardly measured up to what Serenity had experienced not so very long ago when she embraced her heritage as Mystra's daughter. She watched as the tendrils of mana stretched out to caress the world that Saturn had destroyed.
"So…this is the past…" She whispered.
"Not the past." The man's voice was soft, serious, and unfortunately free of the agony she'd hoped to inflict on him. "Maybe a parallel world or something similar. It happens to me all the time." He smiled and shrugged, holding out a small box of something in her direction. "Pocky?"
Serenity looked at the box carefully, noting that it was strawberry-kiwi flavored before she snagged a couple sticks. She returned her attention back to the familiar drama unfolding before her. Pharaoh 90's weak voice echoed loudly in the quiet.
((I must escape! I must return to our home system!))
Serenity tuned the freakish bastard out and looked to where Saturn had reappeared. She remembered this moment oh, so clearly. Hotaru, such a frail and broken girl, proudly standing in the face of a dark god and giving everything she had…intent on sacrificing herself in order to atone for imagined sins. Damn it! She hated the thought of such an innocent suffering for the pride and greed of others.
"Now! The end is near! I, Sailor Saturn, the guide to death, will lead you to the world of silence and nothingness."
"That would be my cue." The man beside her sighed and vanished the box of pocky. In place of the snack, a wicked looking scythe appeared. He smiled at Serenity and held out his hand. "Sorry for the misunderstanding and the liberties I took. I really thought I was dreaming. It seems some of my family members decided to play a joke on us."
"Wait! Who are you?"
"Most people call me Mr. Black. But, I've grown kind of fond of Joe." The man paused and looked over to Hotaru. "Well, damn. This complicates things. Just wait here a moment while I do my thing. We'll continue this when I'm not so distracted. Alright?"
Serenity nodded as he climbed onto a translucent horse and rode off into the sky. She watched him disappear into the raging magical storm that was building up around the Senshi of Death. It was then that Hotaru's last words cut through the air to settle deep in Serenity's heart.
"Do not be distraught. Always with the end, comes hope and rebirth. You are the one that brings that, Super Sailor Moon."
Super Sailor Moon? Serenity grimaced. Damn that was really cheesy!
Gale force winds carried away the next part of Hotaru's dialogue, but the sweet little girl's voice cut through the tempest proudly proclaiming the last words of advice that Serenity had shamefully forgotten.
"I am the Senshi who brings the death and destruction necessary for rebirth. This land is destined to become the Silver Millennium. Its sacred power is your ally."
Serenity wept as the mana built to a crescendo, drowning out everything but her own memories. She knew the words of sacrifice. She knew what was to come…a death that should never have happened. Yet, how could she change the out come? If Hotaru didn't die here, she wouldn't have been reborn to temper the Outer Senshi's coldness.
Then again, had baby Hotaru truly done much good for Michiru and Haruka? The battles against Galaxia had shown that they were still willing to kill their own daughter in order to achieve their desired goals.
Serenity shook her head.
No. Hotaru's death and subsequent rebirth had been meaningless to the pair in the end. She couldn't afford to allow such a travesty to occur again. Hotaru deserved better! She'd earned the right to be loved unconditionally, rather than to be treated as a sacrifice on the altar of someone else's pride.
"DARK DOME CLOSE!" Pluto's attack began to seal the dimensional rift, and Serenity acted.
The gravitational forces tore Saturn's body asunder, leaving the raw mana and spiritual energies of her Star Seed bare. She was disgusted at how slow her younger counter part had been to act, and poured everything she had into achieving what needed to be done here to appease justice and righteousness. Using all the ambient energy around her, as well as the power of the Ginzuisho to boost her own sorcery, Serenity began weaving the spell that she desired – a spell of resurrection. The body was rebuilt and the spirit and Star Seed collected. Now all she needed to do was fuse them all together again.
"Gently." A pair of gloved hands wrapped around hers, easing the strain and subtly guiding her efforts. "Easy now. Bring her back slowly."
His voice was calm and focused, aiding her concentration greatly. And in no time at all their hands were filled with the warm, naked body of a dark haired infant. The symbol of Saturn blazed brilliantly on her brow. Serenity couldn't help but cry at the sight of the precious little girl.
"I'll do right by you this time, Hotaru-chan."
She nuzzled the baby as the healing waves of her dimensional counterpart's spell washed over the broken world, restoring it to life once more. Joe's hands settled on Serenity's shoulders, gently guiding her away from the edge of the roof top. She held little Hotaru close, shielding her body from the cold air as best she could. The dark haired man conjured a diaper, a full outfit, and a soft blanket for the baby as they walked towards his pale horse. He smiled down at Hotaru's sleepy face before looking up at Serenity. Her frowning face sent shivers down his spine.
"So…are you sure you're not the subconscious representation of my repressed sexuality?" He asked, cocking his head to the side and looking her up and down again.
"Shall I prove it to you again?" Serenity growled.
He held up his hands to ward off the blow.
"Not necessary! Not necessary! I just had to make sure." He sighed and looked up at his horse. "I don't suppose you'd be willing to keep this to yourself, would you?"
"What's in it for me?"
He sighed and shook his head as he helped her into the saddle. Serenity smiled toothily. The Simbul's lessons in haggling were going to come in handy after all. Their adventures thereafter were many and varied. Time ran fluidly backwards, forwards, and in some strange cases from side to side. And through it all, Serenity never let go of Hotaru. It was strange that the baby didn't seem to age. Perhaps it was the nature of moving so randomly through time, but Serenity didn't mind in the least. Hotaru-chan was an angel, and the anchor she needed in her life at the moment.
It took her a long time to recognize Joe for who and what he was; but by that time, she'd been able to work through her issues with death and killing. They'd shared their burdens, and she acknowledged the need that someone needed to carry the burden so that others didn't have to. It was a bittersweet realization. Which brought them to this moment, situated somewhere in the early twentieth century France, just before the outbreak of World War II.
They strolled placidly through the Parc du Champs de Mars, with the Eiffel Tower acting as an ideal backdrop. The brisk fall air was refreshing, and the pair pushing the stroller looked to be the perfect family enjoying a wonderful Saturday outing.
"So, do you miss it?" Joe asked.
"Whatever it was that you were running from."
"All the time." Serenity smiled softly. "It's hard though, you know?"
"Being stuck between two worlds, and wanting to stay in both."
"I can sympathize."
Serenity laughed with him.
"I suppose you can at that. So, what are you going to do? It sounds like you and Kara were getting serious before you left on this little adventure."
"Play it by ear." Joe shrugged. "Enjoy the rest of my vacation; find a way to keep a revolving door between the two universes."
"Long distant relationships suck, Joe."
"Tell me about it."
"You should ask her to go back with you." Serenity pressed as she adjusted the blanket in Hotaru's pram to cover the baby a bit better. The fall chill was starting to come in and she didn't want the baby to catch a cold.
"So you keep telling me, Miss Matchmaker."
"Are you going to listen to me this time?"
"Maybe." They laughed as they walked, enjoying the sights, the beautiful day, and the magnificent Parisian ambiance. They knew it wouldn't last forever. And in that, they were correct.
"Ahem." Serenity and Joe turned; the former gasping and the latter raising an eyebrow. Susan, leading Binky as calm as you please, approached them along the path leading back to the Avenue Joseph Bouvard. She looked rather cross. "Are you finished running?"
"That depends." Joe asked with a grin. "Are you finished chasing?"
Susan sighed and rubbed her temple.
"Hello, Uncle Joseph."
"Hello, Susie. How's your Granddad?"
"Rincewind." It was a statement, and Serenity felt certain that the word had to be a name. Joe nodded sagely and tried very hard not to laugh.
"What's a Rincewind?" Serenity asked.
"A wizard…" Susan stated. Joe snorted and shook his head. "After a fashion."
"So, Suzie…" Joe shrugged off the LOOK as if it were nothing. "What brings you chasing after me? I'm on vacation."
"You're always on vacation, Uncle Joseph."
"True." Joe nodded thoughtfully. "But, I always seem to do more work on my vacations than I do the rest of the time."
"Invariably." Susan sighed, patting Binky. Joe released Mortis and allowed the Pookah and Death's steed to commiserate. "Unfortunately, I'm not here for you Uncle. I'm here for my student."
"She's your super, awesome, very strict but still totally cool teacher?" Joe asked pointing at Susan. Serenity blushed and nodded. Susan raised an eyebrow. "Suzie's…"
"Shut up, Joe." Serenity growled.
"Right." He snickered. "Shutting up."
"Are you here to take me back?"
"Do I have to repeat my earlier question?"
"No, Susan." Serenity sighed and picked Hotaru out of the stroller. "I'm ready. Joe, if you would be so kind?"
A few swishes and a flick or two of his wand, shrunk the stroller. Joe then turned his attention to digging in his coat pockets, pulling out a large magical trunk and a number of suitcases. The last to appear were a diaper bag and very large stuffed horse that bore a striking resemblance to Mortis. Serenity handed the baby to Joe for a moment, while she wriggled her way into the baby sling. Once settled, she took Hotaru back and secured her before pulling out her own wand and shrinking everything to fit in her handbag.
"What's all this then?"
Serenity raised an eyebrow and planted a fist on her free hip.
"You honestly don't expect me to leave Hotaru-chan with Joe, do you?"
"Considering all the nonsense that he stumbles upon, I think you are being very responsible."
Susan peeked over the edge of the sling and was met with a wide-eyed violet stare. There was a connection instantly formed; primal and eternal. Whether Susan realized it in that moment, she had become an aunt. Startled by the sudden urge to squeal and pinch the baby's cheeks, Susan stepped back and blinked. She shook her head and climbed into Binky's saddle.
"We should be going."
"How long have I been gone?"
"Time really has no meaning for Binky. It's all one rather large mess as far as he's concerned." She looked to the sky. "I should think we'll return to Silverymoon an hour or two after you left this morning."
"Oh, well, that's rather handy."
"Death's never late." Joe grinned.
"Liar." Serenity poked him in the side. She stared at him for a long moment then he found himself swallowed in a bear hug of epic proportions. "Thank you! For everything."
She tried not to cry, really and truly. But, as Joe wrapped his arms around her, the dam broke and the tears began to flow.
"Here now. None of that." His hand dipped into a pocket and pulled out a handkerchief. "You have everything you need to contact me, right?"
She nodded into his neck.
"Then there's no problem. Henchgirl and the Doctor are certainly going to call you to check up on Hotaru, and if you need anything you know all you need to do is ask. This isn't goodbye, it's just you going back to work."
"Promise we'll take another vacation?"
"Of course. You going to introduce me to your boyfriend? Or is it boyfriends? I still get mixed up on that point."
Serenity slugged him in the shoulder.
"Jerk. I'm not letting you within a mile of any boyfriend if you intend to give him Xander's horrible shovel speech!"
"Are you trying to deny me my divinely given right to threaten my baby sister's potential love interest?" He clutched his chest dramatically. "Serenity! You wound me!"
She snorted and shook her head.
"No. Just improbable." He grinned and wiggled his eye brows.
"I'll miss you."
"I'll call you when we have the family reunion. I expect lots of pictures of Hotaru. I've changed enough diapers to deserve frequent updates."
"Off you go then." He chivvied her up to Binky and helped her mount.
"Can we drop you off anywhere?" Susan asked.
"No. I'm on vacation, and I still need to figure this thing out." He held up the remote and grinned irreverently.
"Safe journey then." She nodded to him. "It was nice to see you again, Uncle."
"You too." He patted Binky's neck. "Be safe. The both of you."
Serenity watched him shrink as Binky took to the air, and in no time she and Susan were gone. Susan nudged Binky's flanks and he increased his speed. The horse, if one could truly call him such, ignored the principles of physics and the laws of nature as it steadily galloped higher and higher into the clouds, leaving a trail of flaming hoof prints glowing on the air in its wake.
To even attempt to call him "grey" would be a terrible insult, and Serenity could see, even without the use of her Business Eyes that this animal was so much more real than the rest of the world. He was even more real than Susan herself, and that was saying something. Looking in the horse's eyes told of its intelligence. Serenity felt dumb, in spite of everything that Susan had been teaching her, when looking in those eyes. It was obvious that this animal had seen things and done things that mortal and immortal alike couldn't readily comprehend. She felt terribly small in the animal's presence.
The world seemed to shift, then twist, compress, and flush itself down the commode; in varying order, multiple times. It was a series of sensations that Serenity decidedly hated, and they managed to endure for far too long. When the universe finally righted itself and Serenity seemed capable of opening her eye without losing what was left of her breakfast and lunch, she saw that Binky was galloping above a very familiar mountain range. Well below them and to their immediate left, lit by the fading evening sun, lay the massive and downright welcome sight of Silverymoon. The multitude of lights sparkled prettily off the water of the river as evening faded into night. Very familiar landmarks could be seen in the distance, but Serenity was too lost at the sensation of being back on Toril to care.
The Weave sang to her, welcoming her back with all the warmth of a motherly hug. After being gone so long, Serenity basked in the sensation. Yet, beneath that warmth swam a sense of foreboding. The insidious sensation settled in the pit of her stomach as Death's stallion began his descent.
"A little. How do you think Alustriel will react to everything?"
"I imagine that she won't be happy with you when we get back. But, I should think that you would be more worried about Alassra's reaction."
She shuddered and leaned against Susan's back.
"I have no doubt that they will all be quite cross with me." Serenity agreed. "But they'll get over it."
"Hotaru will no doubt help a great deal."
"Yes. A perfect shield to deflect her ire."
"Hiding behind infants? How brave."
"Courage is knowing when to face your enemies, and when it is better to run so you can live to fight another day."
"Careful, your wisdom is showing."
They rode long in silence, passing large clouds and startling a number of flocks of geese as they rode down and above the city proper. Serenity neither felt the cold of the altitude, nor the brace of the frigid winds that she knew inhabited these climes. They landed in the courtyard of Alustriel's palace and were met by a severe gathering of hard faces. Most notable among them were Ulin and Alassra. Serenity sighed and slid off of Binky's back. She made a point of thanking him both with words and a warm kiss to his nose that caused him to shake his head happily. She produced a fairly large apple and fed it to him while Susan dismounted.
Teacher and student shared a glance, and then turned together to face the crowd. Both women were glad that Hotaru was with them. Her presence was definitely the shield they both needed to escape the worst of the ire directed at them. Dinner was spent in quiet conversation, sharing many of her adventures with Joe. She was even coerced into sharing some of the magic that she'd learned from the perpetually vacationing wizard. That more than diffused much of the ire that she'd left behind this morning, and several years past. Serenity rubbed her temple at the headache that was forming.
The sense of unease within her heart was growing louder.
The City of Shade
"She's…not…ready." Sefaril gasped a deep breath, gulping down the unimaginable pain, and tried to blink back the tears in her eyes. "Please! Save her!"
"I don't know how!" Ranma protested.
"She needs…needs…to grow more! She needs a…a womb." The woman whimpered in agony. "Please, Lord Ranma!" Sefaril drew a sharp breath, and then was gone. Ranma-kun felt her spirit start to slip away and quickly drew her to him, hugging her body close and gathering her soul and joining it with her husband's. It was a bitter sweet reunion.
"The baby needs a womb." Angharradh watched helplessly as the tears rolled down the cheeks of the newest member of her court.
"We could give her a body." His voice was hoarse but even.
"Do you even know how to do something like that yet?" Sharess demanded. He shook his head in defeat. "I didn't think so."
He turned to Angharradh fiercely.
"You could do it!"
The red headed elven goddess closed her eyes and sighed.
"No, Glauenthiel. I cannot."
"Why the Hell not!"
"Because she is tied to you. She wants none but you." She held her hand over Sefaril's womb and smiled. "Can you not feel her love? Agency is the one power that we gods cannot ignore."
"Well, handsome?" Sharess asked. "You ready?"
"Yes. No." He sighed. "I'm not sure how to do what needs to be done. Let alone how to feel about it."
"Does it really matter?" She smiled softly.
"Damn it. Mom would kill me for doing this." He growled as she pulled him to his feet.
"Mother? What mother?" Sharess asked blankly.
"His mortal mother." Selune offered. "She holds no sway over your destiny though, does she Ranma."
"No." He frowned.
"There is no more time, Ranma." Angharradh moved in behind him and laid her hands on his shoulders. "Are you going to save the baby or not?"
He looked at her sharply.
"Like there was ever any question." He growled, pushing her away and shifting forms from male to female in the blink of an eye. A glowing orb of green light was pulled from Sefaril's corpse and melded with hers. Ranma-chan gasped in pleasure and fulfillment, feeling complete for the first time in a very long while.
Those gathered around her watched with sad smiles as her belly grew to accommodate the budding new life. She bent low and tapped Sefaril's body, causing it to dissolve into motes of light that were drawn into the goddess' being and held safe. Ranma-chan smiled softly as wings, or something that resembled wings, exploded from her back.
Sharess would later describe them as ribbons of shadow and light. Her once flame red hair was leeched of all color, becoming bone white before streaks of ebony, onyx, and ruby shot through her long locks. Her power began to build before her coalescing in a pair of orbs; one of cold silver and another of even colder blackness.
She looked around at the killing fields and felt disgusted. The Shadovar continued their mad exodus from the stadium; their only concern for themselves as they trampled man, woman, and child alike. Children. They brought children to this slaughter! The thick streams of energy leapt from the very ground and air, being forcefully drawn and torn from the city itself.
The Shadovar were beyond panic at that point. They knew the end was at hand. Their hubris however refused to die gracefully though. Those few still loyal to the High Prince heard his barked command and spells of power were cast at the figures below. One fact was clear, their efforts were all for naught. The Weavebender absorbed them one and all into the pulsing balls of magic gathering above her hands. Monsters and otherworldy beings were summoned, only to fall down dead at the feet of their summoners as Ranma sucked the magic from the very air. She turned to the others and smiled softly.
"You should leave."
"What about Shar?" Shevarash demanded.
"All debts will be paid, Emo-Boy." Angharradh and Sharess snorted at the indignation on the Black Archer's face. "She can run from one end of creation to the next, but it won't saver her in the end. She'll pay. For Aelin. For Ked. For Ethelliandra."
The orbs flared once and Ranma's palms bled. Her blood dripped into the sand at her feet, causing it to hiss angrily.
"I swear it."
Shevarash and Angharradh nodded once and vanished. Selune approached slowly and gathered Ranma into a motherly hug.
"She killed them."
"I know, child."
"She killed Sefaril."
"She tried to kill the baby!" Ranma couldn't hold the tears back any longer. "My baby!"
"Teach them the price of their folly, Destroyer. Let them know your sorrow, Lord of Change." Selune kissed Ranma-chan on the forehead and motioned for Sharess to follow her. They departed silently leaving Ranma to stand in the center of the arena, all but alone. The only others that yet remained, were the Prince and his faithful hand, Hadrune.
"You tried to chain my power. You tried to kill my child. Know your place."
The orbs swam with silver and black fires, growing steadily until they reached some twenty feet in diameter. At that point Ranma let go of the spheres of energy and rocketed skyward, her ribbon wings spread wide. She looked down upon the City of Shade in judgment. Her male aspect was a cold fury at the death of Sefaril, while the female aspect was enraged at the innocent life that had almost been snuffed out; the innocent life that was even now growing in her womb. They had tried to enslave her and kill her baby.
The orbs shot together from their positions, expanding radically before collapsing into a tiny pinprick of silent bone white energy.
And like Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, the City of Shade became a conflagration of silent death, finally joining the legendary Netheril. The violent magics shredded the spells holding the jewel of the Shadovar together, and the subsequent explosion was felt a hundred leagues away in all directions. In the wake of the atomized city, a million souls sought to escape to their afterlife.
"No." Ranma hissed. "I'm not done with you yet."
They rose on spiritual winds and eddies, seeking the portals that would take them to the place of judgment. But their journey to Kelemvor's domain was arrested and they began to be drawn towards another source. They flocked inexorably to their new home: Glauenthiel, the Spirit Sentinel – the great Well of Souls.
She hadn't wanted to collect them. She wanted to bind them to this wretched place; force them to live with their stupidity and greed for the rest of eternity. But in her rage and inexperience she found them being fixed to her instead. Ranma valiantly attempted to escape her fate, but the souls followed the flow of the Shadow Weave that they had bound themselves to so fully. She could not push them away, even had she tried. For all their sins against her, they were hers. She roared in frustration, allowing her magic to run wild and free.
It tore up the sands and carved great gouges in the bedrock beneath the desert. An arcane, land-locked hurricane formed with her at its eye. The Great Desert was lashed for a hundred leagues in every direction with the fruits of her rage as she tried to evade the souls of the Shadovar that dogged her. She didn't care. Let the world know her pain. She couldn't bury it. She spared an instant for those few innocents she sensed in the path of the storm, plucking them free of the deadly storm and dropping them down in Providence with but a thought. The rest were abominations and cursed Netherese left overs that deserved their fates.
She shot higher in an attempt to outrun the hated souls that dogged her. Like bloodhounds with a scent they continued to pursue. She screamed in aggravation, and shot westward as fast as her wings would carry her, flying at speeds no mortal could truly comprehend. And still they followed, their speed increasing to match hers. She cried and screamed, she cursed and begged, and still they single-mindedly followed her.
It was over the mountains of the Spine of the World that they finally caught up to her. She fought their clinging and demanding presence, but in the end they won out – seeping into her being like a contact poison. The addition of their spiritual energy expanded her apotheosis by yet another order of magnitude; but she was unwilling to accept the gift. The explosion of power decimated a series of mountains, throwing them low.
Many of the orcish horde belonging to Obould Many-arrows within the mountains died that day, wiped from the world by the energy released or the mountains that fell upon them. Obould himself was dumbfounded at the width and breadth of the destruction. King Bruenor Battlehammer, deep within his Mithril Hall, gave thanks to Moradin that the cataclysm left his people relatively untouched.
Serenity woke screaming. The agony in her heart too intense to be ignored. Her very soul ached for their loss. She could feel his rage. They had killed Sefaril! They had tried to hurt the baby! Her baby! She reached out to the bassinet beside her bed and called Hotaru to her. She wouldn't let them hurt the baby. She wanted them to suffer! She gathered the spell, and with it their souls. NO! Something was wrong! They were pursuing her now! She felt the sickness of their tainted touch and looked for a place to run. She dodged and evaded. She bobbed and weaved, trying to put as much space between them as possible. She knew what they hungered for.
She had meant to bind them, and now they wanted to join with her; to become one with her! The audacity! The affront! NO! She wouldn't allow it!
The power gathered itself rapidly, burning in her veins and searing her bones. It was all Serenity could do to try and control the flow, let alone to stem it. She could see the multitudes swarming her and their fear barely registered through the haze of her anger. She curled around Hotaru protectively and snarled.
She could still see the demons laughing in gross anticipation of innocent blood, even as they died. Their pain and excitement turned her stomach – more than enough impetus to stretch forth her hand and silence them. She hated them and everything they represented. They were abominations and aberrations, even in a balanced world. The power lanced down her arms and collected in her palms as she glared hatefully in their dead faces.
Something changed in their countenance as she hovered there; some sick realization that this was the end of them. Yet, they pushed forward still. They would join wither her, whether she wanted it or not. The first sought to over taker her and she rejected them, rebuking them even as the rest swarmed. The sensation was sickening; cloyingly claustrophobic. She allowed her power to gather more and started to strike back – to obliterate them all, just as Aelin and the others had been destroyed. That sense of cruel vengeance shocked her more than anything else. How could she want that for another person, no matter how evil? She tried to pull the power back, to protect the millions of lives that her rage was about to end.
But it was too late. The power was already flying free.
The wall of her chambers exploded outward, a miniscule echo of the power that had been unleashed on a now dead city in the far east, and the simultaneous blast that was even now obliterating a mountain range not too far north of where she was standing. The voices of the damned were already making themselves known; whispering their empty pleas for forgiveness and mercy. Begging, clawing, demanding…
Serenity screamed in anguish and clutched Hotaru to her protectively. The baby wailed in fear and pain.
Alustriel and a full contingent of the Palace Guard, including some of the more prominent guests raced through the halls. She could hear Serenity's screams echoing through the now silent halls as surely as she had felt the explosive tremor of magic that had shaken the whole palace. Susan arrived at her side and both threw propriety to the four winds, hiking their skirts as high as they would go in their haste to give their charge the aid she was calling for. The girl's screaming was horrible, and her crying gut wrenching…as if she was beset by some unspeakable horror. Alassra and Storm joined the pair as they crossed into Serenity's apartments. She hovered above the melted flagstones of her room, the same flagstones that had been warded against dragon flame, and continued to scream herself hoarse. It was obvious that the world around her didn't exist. Her eyes stared at some distant terror that only she could see.
"Call the priests and tend any wounded. If there are any dead, she is not to know. Storm, the baby." Alustriel sped through the rubble as best she could and tried not to marvel at the destruction. When she reached the poor girl, she was trembling and mumbling.
"Fly!" She hissed. "Fly you fool! You must save the baby."
Alustriel couldn't tell whether she was speaking to her, or someone else.
She approached tentatively and gently took her sister in her arms. Hotaru continued to wail. The moment she touched Serenity's skin the world went white as a million voices, damned and innocent alike brushed her mind. It took a small eternity for the world to right itself as Alustriel lifted herself from the debris on the floor. Storm was cradling Hotaru and breaking for the door. Those that accompanied Alustriel were already half way into the room, covering the bard's escape and coming to the aid of their queen.
She held up a hand to halt them as Serenity began screaming about the baby. Taern Hornblade looked ready to begin casting a spell, but the look she leveled at him killed the spell on his lips. Serenity was rocking herself and weeping. Alustriel could hear mumbled words tumbling from her lips and scooted closer to better make them out. Her eyes were not her own, and neither was her voice.
"…tried to kill the baby. They killed her and tried to kill the baby. Oh God. They're dead. Nothing left of them to call back. Have to protect…duty to protect. Have to save the baby." She snarled in a very ugly fashion and glared out the shattered remains of the wall to the East. "Deserved to die…evil bastards. Trying to kill my baby!"
Serenity wailed and pulled at her hair in despair before dropping her hands to her belly, just over her womb.
"My baby! My baby needs a womb! How can I have a baby?"
She grabbed Alustriel by the front of her dress and pulled the both of them to their feet. The sound of steel being drawn made Alustriel gesture angrily at the group near the door. There were cries of alarm as everyone save her sisters, Susan and Taern simply disappeared.
"I can't have a baby!" She desperately hissed in a very masculine voice.
"Why not?" Alustriel carefully took Serenity's face in her hands and began smoothing the girl's hair.
"Men can't have babies. Men don't have wombs! Have to be a man! A man among men!" Serenity began to shake Alustriel with a strength that was not her own. A silver glow danced around her body in a very disconcerting way. "Can't let the curse do this to me! But the baby needs a womb and I made a promise. A man keeps his promises. I have to be a man. A man among men! I AM A MAN! DO YOU HEAR ME? A MAN!" Alustriel found herself lifted clear off the floor, and barely noted Susan club Serenity upside the head.
Both women tumbled to the floor, but Serenity was not unconscious as she should have been. She simply wept into her hands and kept whispering to herself.
"All dead. All dead. A city full of dead people inside me. They're all dead."
"Leave us." Alustriel rubbed her baby sister's back gently, doing her best to soothe the girl's distress while trying to make sense of it at the same time.
"Are you certain my Lady?" Taern looked torn between obeying and separating his queen from this new threat.
"I SAID LEAVE!" There was no room for misinterpretation as a silver flame literally danced in Alustriel's eyes. Taern and the others fled from the room with all haste, leaving the Shining Lady to comfort the Silver Princess.
"All dead. All dead. A city full of dead people inside me. They're all dead."
End Chapter 11