She was sitting on a grassy hill, which was situated next to a big lake. All around, she was surrounded by nature. Green hills, lush forests, clean fresh air. It was a sight to behold, and a sight to make a worried soul happy.
Still, Usagi Tsukino was anything but happy. With a frown, she picked up a small stone from the ground and threw it into the deep waters of the lake.
She glanced over to where she could see the rooftop of auntie's house through the branches of the trees.
Her mother thought she would make her children happy when she told them that they would spend the summer vacation away from the busy city, in the country, away from hectic and stress.
She didn't expect her daughter to gasp in shock and plead with her mother to stay home for the vacations.
True, the summer residence of her aunt (in which they were allowed to stay) was situated in the middle of a beautiful landscape, and under normal circumstances, Usagi would be more than happy to hear that she could spend her vacations in a place like this.
But... there was one simple problem. A problem that had to do with her second identity as the sailor suited defender of love and justice, Sailor Moon.
To make it quick: One of her teammates had vanished. That teammate wasn't a powerful fighter like the others, oh no! She wasn't even one of the Sailor Senshi herself. Still, she was a reliable member of the team, and a great friend.
Luna, her advisor and moon cat companion, had disappeared.
It had happened during one of their missions in Juuban. They had fought one of Beryl's old Youmas, a remainder of her old army. Deep below the earth of Juuban, it had been able to gather energy until it was strong enough to challenge even the new-powerful Sailor Team, the Outer Senshi included.
After a hard battle, they finally managed to defeat the monster, but... when they looked around, Luna was gone. Artemis told them that he had searched for cover as soon as the Youma had started shooting around its poisonous spikes, but then his head got hit by something hard and he lost consciousness. So he didn't know where Luna had vanished to either.
To Usagi's parents, it simply looked like their daughter's pet had ran away, and they did the usual stuff in such a case: Printing missing posters with Luna's picture on them and asking the people of the neighborhood if they had seen her.
But Luna remained lost, and even though the Senshi searched the whole city for their black-furred companion, they couldn't find her.
Usagi was devastated, and it took all of her friends' efforts to soothe her.
All of this happened almost a month ago. Usagi and her friends still were searching for the moon cat, but then Ikuko Tsukino informed her family about the big news: Her sister had allowed her and her family to spend the summer vacations in her summer residence, just at the edge of just this lake.
Usagi didn't want to go on vacation while she knew that Luna was still out there. But her mother insisted that the change of scene would do her good and help her to cope with everything. Besides, she felt like Usagi should be old enough to deal with it and live on.
But Luna wasn't just any pet to Usagi. She was her best friend.
While Ami, Rei, Minako and Makoto promised her to keep doing their best to find Luna, Usagi felt as if she was betraying her friend. Now she was sitting here, within this beautiful scenery and her feline friend could be anywhere. Who knows what she had to endure just at this moment?
Sighing deeply, Usagi stood up from the ground. Tonight, she would ask her mother once again if they could go home early. As she did every evening by now. And she wouldn't stop asking until they were back home again.
She picked up one last stone and flung it into the lake. And that's when something strange happened.
For a very short instance, not more than a second, the dark, murky water of the lake became crystal clear and she could see through its waters just like through thin air.
And what she saw at the bottom of the lake was more than enough to distract her from her thoughts and make her wonder about her own sanity.
It was a city.
A big, ancient city with massive stone buildings, tall towers and empty streets.
And then, as quickly as the image had appeared, it was gone again and the lake returned to its previous, murky state.
Usagi rubbed her eyes and stared at the lake once again. But the image stayed the same.
"Okay now..." she muttered to herself. "I really should stop watching those fantasy DVDs Rei gave to me..."
She shook her head. It just had to be her imagination. A sunken city? What could possibly be more weird than that?
The answer came as she turned around to walk back to the house.
It was a very weird-looking, diminutive creature with bluish skin, two stubby little feet and no arms. From its round head, two strange appendages that resembled ears were dangling down, and a third, oval protrusion extended from its forehead. It also had a black tail. And it was standing directly in front of her.
As the creature smirked at her with squinted eyes and a mouth that looked like a zigzag line, Usagi took a step backwards in shock. Had she gone completely crazy by now?
Then the strange being opened its broad mouth and exclaimed one single word:
Afterwards, it turned around and vanished among the bushes.
Several seconds later, Usagi was still standing at the same position, trying to tell herself that whatever she had just seen was nothing but a strange dream.
The proof that it wasn't a dream was just in front of her: A trail of strange, round footprints, that lead directly into the forest...
On her way back to the residence, Usagi believed more and more that everything she saw had just been a figment of her imagination. That strange gnome she could have easily accepted as some form of unidentified monster, sent by some unknown new enemy.
But a complete city underneath the surface of the lake that is visible only for a short instance?
Even if she considered the transformations, supernatural enemies and time travels she dealt with during her adventures as Sailor Moon, this was a bit too much.
As she reached the house she decided not to talk about this with anyone... not even with her friends, after she would come home. They would most likely laugh at her.
"I'm back!" she shouted as she came in and removed her shoes.
A grinning face that was surrounded by long, raven-black hair appeared in the door leading to the living room. "Welcome back... meatball head!"
Usagi looked back at her friend and teammate in surprise.
Shortly afterwards, they were all sitting together in the living room. Usagi realized with surprise that Rei hadn't come alone... her grandfather was sitting next to her mother and sipped from a cup of tea.
"When I told Grandpa that you're spending your vacation here," Rei spoke up. "He remembered that the priest of the nearby temple is an old friend of his, and so he decided that the two of us could use a little time away from our duties as well... so we packed our things and came!" She smiled.
Usagi smiled back. She was really glad to have one of her friends around, one who she could speak with. With only her parents and the pesky little Shingo around (okay, he can be a nice brother every now and then), the time at the lake had been really boring and bothersome for the blonde girl.
Grandfather Hino took a sip from his cup. "I've been here several times," he explained. "But not nearly quite as regularly as back when I've been a young lad." He chuckled. "Koji and I used to do all kind of wild stuff those days. We were swimming in the lake, exploring the forests and looking for the spirits."
Usagi blinked. "The spirits?"
"Oh, didn't you know?" The old man put down his cup. "The people living around here have all kinds of stories that there are many strange creatures living around here, nature spirits, yokais and ghosts." He chuckled. "Back when I was a young boy, I believed everything, of course. Nowadays... well, let's just say: We all don't know what's out there, do we?" He picked up his cup and took another sip.
Usagi's father laughed. "Well, Shingo, you gotta be careful then. You don't want one of those yokais to come and get you, right?"
"Hah, hah, very funny..." the young boy muttered.
"Please, Grandpa... we decided that on this vacation, we wanted to stop thinking about spirits and such," Rei sighed. "The people that live around here are creepy enough..." She shuddered.
"Why, Rei-chan?" Usagi's mother asked. "Did you meet anyone in particular?"
"Well... there was this strange boy I ran into yesterday, right after we arrived. He was wearing tattered clothes, and his face was dirty..."
Ikuko raised her eyebrows. "Is that alone a reason to call someone creepy?"
"That's not it," Rei tried to explain. "You know... he acted weird. I was strolling through the forest, eating one of the sandwiches we brought from home, and I accidentally dropped the wrapping. I just wanted to go and pick it up, when suddenly, this guy stood in front of me. He yelled at me in some strange language I didn't understand... and then he gestured at the wrapping. I think he was upset that I dropped it to the ground. You know, I tried to explain that I dropped it by accident, but he wouldn't listen... I don't know if he even understood me. In the end, he picked up the wrapping by himself and left without saying another word. But he threw me such an angry glare... He acted as if I had committed some sort of crime."
"Ah yes, I think that was Ash," Grandfather Hino nodded. "My friend Koji told me all about him... he's supposed to be an orphan that lives nearby, with his foster parents. He's a foundling, you know?"
"A... foundling?" Usagi wondered.
Hino nodded. "Yes, his foster parents found him in the woods a few months ago. He was wearing some strange clothes and only spoke a very old dialect most of the people around here didn't understand. When they realized that the boy didn't have a home, they adopted him."
"But why did he act like this?" Rei wondered.
"Well, they say that Ash loves nature like nobody else. He spends most of his time running through the woods, searching for animals or sitting atop trees. You don't want to know how often he has driven his foster parents crazy by bringing home forest animals that have been hurt." He took another sip. "If there's one thing he can't stand, it's people who pollute the environment."
"I see..." his granddaughter murmured. "And when I dropped the bread wrapping, he believed I did it intentionally..."
"Well, I hope this boy won't come near this house," Ikuko said. "I don't want my children to hang around with such a boy."
"He's not a bad guy," Grandfather Hino explained. "He's just not used to human civilization as we know it. Some people believe he was being raised by animals."
Usagi's father laughed. "Some sort of modern Mowgli, huh?"
"Something like that," Hino shrugged. He put his cup down again. "My, this was simply delicious, Ikuko! You have to tell me the name of this brand."
"Why, thank you!" Usagi's mother beamed. "I'm glad you liked it. Would you like another cup, Hino-san?"
The old man shook his head. "No, I have to politely decline. My friend is waiting for us back at his home, and I don't want to keep him waiting." He stood up. "Rei, are you coming?"
"Aw, you're leaving already?" Usagi whined.
Rei smiled. "Sorry, wish I could stay for longer... but I'll come over tomorrow, promise!"
"Why don't you sleep here, Rei-chan?" Ikuko asked. "There are two beds in the room where Usagi is sleeping... my sister has twin daughters, you know? You could share the room. Um, that is, if that is fine with your grandfather."
Grandfather Hino shrugged. "I don't mind. I know she will be fine in your care, Tsukino-san."
Rei and Usagi smiled at each other. "Great!" Usagi cheered. "It's gonna be like a pajama party!"
Shingo rolled his eyes. "Girls... go figure..." he muttered. Usagi simply growled at him.
Rei's grandfather stood up. "Oh well, I have to leave. Perhaps I will come for a visit very soon... this tea is just too tasty." He grinned. "And perhaps I can tell you some more stories my friend told me about this region. Like the story of the hidden labyrinth... or about the city in the lake."
The others laughed, but Usagi felt a chill crawling up her spine. What did he say? City in the lake?
Right after Grandfather Hino had left, Usagi excused herself and Rei, and she dragged her friend to the room she was sleeping in. She then closed the door.
"What's the hurry, Usagi?" the raven-haired Shinto priestess asked. "You look worried. Is it about Luna? I'm sorry, but we still couldn't find a trace of her..."
Usagi shook her head. "This isn't about Luna..." she said. "But after hearing what your grandfather just said... I have to tell you something."
"What is it?" Rei asked as they sat down on the two beds.
Usagi gulped. "You know, either I'm going nuts or something big is going on. You... you won't believe what I saw earlier, when I was at the lake..."
After Usagi had finished telling her friend the story about the city in the lake and about the weird, blue creature, Rei was sitting on the edge of her bed and frowned.
"This is all... very strange, Usagi," she finally said.
"You don't believe me..." Usagi muttered. "Well, I already thought so..."
Rei shook her head. "That's not it! I do believe you, that's what makes the whole situation so strange. If there really is a sunken city at the bottom of the lake, and you met a creature like that, it means there has to be some truth in those old stories from Grandpa's friend."
"Well, we could always go and ask him what else he knows," Usagi suggested.
"Good idea, but first, there's something else we could do."
"What do you mean?" the blonde girl asked.
"Well, Grandpa's friend also told us about some old ruins on top of the biggest hill around here... He said they're the remains of some old, feudal castle. Maybe we find some clues up there. If not, we can always ask Grandpa for details."
Usagi nodded. "Yeah, sounds like a plan to me. So..." Her face suddenly turned all worried. "You guys found any clues regarding Luna?"
"No, I'm sorry," Rei sighed. "At least nothing outstanding. Ami has found some weird hairs lying on the ground near the place where Artemis got knocked out, and she wanted to analyze them with the Mercury Computer. She said she wanted to call me as soon as she finds out more." She put an arm around her friend. "Don't worry! We'll find her, sooner or later."
"I really hope so..." the blonde murmured.
Suddenly, the voice of her mother interrupted their thoughts. "Girls, time for dinner!"
"Oh yummy!" Usagi shouted as she jumped up from the bed. "I wonder if we're gonna have those dumplings she brought from home."
Rei chuckled. "Well, good to see that all of this doesn't seem to spoil your appetite. You're still as gluttonous as ever."
"Rei, stop being a meanie!" Usagi grumbled.