There was a voice in her head- it didn't speak to her in words, more emotions and concepts. It rejoiced. It sung and laughed and wallowed in the shreds of darkness it had managed to retain, wrapping itself in them like royal robes. It sat, and waited, and had every faith that things were going deliciously well, that everything was right and perfect. The world was at her fingertips, and all she had to do was reach out, and take it.
The rest of her thought it all had to be a dream- a horrible, terrifying dream. More of a nightmare, really. A soft ache spread throughout her body, as if she'd been remade again and again, every cell of her body torn away and rebuilt, only with something added...something foreign, something horrible and dark. Something, she knew with relief she had somehow managed to reject. Her insides felt raw and tender, like the pads of bare fingertips after pinching out a flame. Not burnt...but very near it. Something had burned her out, and she was feeling it now. Scorched her, from the inside out, a cleansing fire that had ebbed and smouldered as she slept. When she opened her eyes, she expected to find her surroundings smoking and blackened. And things were black, yes- but not from her.
She became aware of an exterior warmth, beside her. She blinked, eyes adjusting to the darkness. She turned her head, her neck weak- her head fell to the side, more than she guided it. She blinked at the broad back that was to her. Muscles shifted subtly under pale flesh as deep, sleeping breaths peppered the air with the sounds of soft exhalations. His right arm was bent back, laying behind him to grasp her wrist in a snug grip that told of possessiveness.
All at once, Usagi became aware of her nude state- the dampness between her legs, the way her hairline felt stiff with dried sweat, the musk that filled the air, the way the sheets were impossibly tangled.
Heat flooded her face. Her insides began to ache, where that heat spread down into her belly, touching places that had just barely begun to cool. Her hand, caught in Endymion's grip, began to tremble. She swallowed, blinking rapidly, harshly, trying to not think about what she didn't remember.
Usagi gently tugged her hand free of his, moving slowly- freezing when, once, he stirred, mumbled, then settled again. Holding her breath, Usagi slipped from the bed. She tried to take a sheet with her, giving up on it when she realized the other end of it was under Endymion. She found her dress on the floor- torn beyond use. Naked, every inch of her bearing evidence to the night's activities, Usagi went to Endymion's abandoned armor and cloak. She swung the heavy length of fabric around her shoulders, fixing the silver clasp beneath her chin. She slipped the thin stiletto dagger from his belt, hiding it among the folds of the cloak. She would have liked to take the sword, but it was nearly as large as she was. She pulled up the deep hood of the cloak, keeping it from falling forward over her face with one hand.
She hadn't meant to look back- that wasn't Mamoru. Maybe, somewhere inside...
But Mamoru would never have... She turned away from the thought, not sure if it was out of shame or delicious embarrassment.
She looked anyway. Just once. At the doorway, she looked over her shoulder, saw him laying there, his face obscured from her at the angle she stood at. Something tugged at her heart, something deep and twisted, because it tugged for the sake of this shade of Endymion and not for Mamoru, or even the true Endymion her memories held crystallized in her pure memory of him. Somehow, this evil echo of the man she loved meant something to her in his own way. It was wrong, and it was forbidden beyond anything she and her dead prince had shared. And yet, it was there.
Confused and frightened, Usagi stole out of the room and down the jagged corridors of stone and shadows. It felt as if she were walking down the gullet of some ancient, forgotten monstrosity. The shadows seemed to ebb and pulse with her as she moved, and that mocking, laughing presence in the back of her mind sang with them, called to them, asked their help in subduing her.
Usagi clasped her hands to her head, stifling a sob. What was wrong with her? She had to get out, get back to her Senshi, back to Luna and their plans and brightly lit meeting places, back to Makoto's cooking and Ami's books... Everything would be fine then. It had to be.
She realized she'd been following the same route that Endymion had taken her down the day before. Abruptly, she jerked herself down the first off-shooting corridor that presented itself, walking fast and breathing faster. Her mind was spinning, and she couldn't make it stop. She had to get out- but she had no idea how. She knew transforming would do no good, even if she could. Such a burst of power would only attract attention. So how did she get out of a place she knew nothing about?
She thought of how that mocking presence subdued in the back of her mind seemed to communicate with the very walls around her, hummed in sync with the shadows. She licked nervous lips.
She had an idea.
A dangerous idea, but an idea.
Slowly, cautiously, Usagi reached out that shade of herself, to that wicked doppelganger that danced at the edges of her awareness. The gleeful entity responded with a viciousness, seizing at the opening, trying to assert herself. It wanted power, it wanted control, and it wanted it now.
"No," Usagi gasped the denial, shaking her head. "You don't exist," she bit out through grit teeth. "I won't let you take over!" She gripped her head between her hands, fingernails digging into soft scalp. She grappled with her unwanted invader, so a part of her and yet so not. Eventually, they settled into a tense stalemate. Usagi maintained a precarious hold on her own senses and her own body, but she was so very, very aware of her inner shadow. Aware, enough, that she had the faintest inclination to go south when she thought of wanting to get out.
It wasn't exactly a detailed mental map, but it was something.
"You sure about this?" Venus looked dubiously at the flickering, multi-colored portal that hovered two-dimensionally in the center of the Control Room floor. Beside her, Mercury was frowning and tapping away furiously at her little compact computer. If the girl's fingers didn't start bleeding soon, Venus would begin to worry about her vascular system.
"No, but we don't have much of a choice," Luna responded, looking solemnly at the big glass screen suspended above the main console unit. The image portrayed there was a grim one that made Venus's heart seize as coldly as the massive icicles and snowdrifts that, in the image, consumed the cityscape. As far as they knew, the entire eastern hemisphere was engulfed in ice, the radius spreading rapidly. On the other side of the globe, people were panicking as they desperately tried to prepare for the icy onslaught that was unexplained. For all intents and purposes, the world was in shreds, either frozen in place or reduced to panic and mayhem. Absolutely perfect for an invasion.
Had they done this? Had they somehow mishandled that day in the warehouse so badly, it allowed Endymion to open that portal, to let in this massive attack? Was there something they could have done? Acted faster? Been smarter? Found the Princess sooner? The last was obvious, seeing as their 'glorious' Princess had been under their noses the whole time. Part of Venus understood the need for the deception, and yet the rest of her loathed herself, feeling her role as the decoy somehow contributed to events decaying as they had... Maybe, if she'd called off the charade sooner, if the true Serenity had come into her own sooner, if...if...if...
She shook off her doubts. The world didn't need a weak, unsure Venusian Senshi at the moment.
"If that's where Jupiter and Mars went, that's where we'll go," Venus said, conviction lending her voice a determination she didn't truly feel. Beside her, Mercury snapped her computer shut and nodded.
"I'm not getting any readings at all," she said. "It's as if..wherever we're going...doesn't really exist."
Venus blinked. "But...it does exist, right?"
"There's no such thing as a portal that leads to nowhere," Mercury replied, still frowning. She glanced to Venus, then back to the portal. "Theoretically."
"Lovely," the blonde leader murmured. Then, drawing herself up, "Let's go." She followed her own words, pulling her power tight around her, ready to use, Golden Lasso ready in hand and humming with energy as she dived on through the crackling portal. Mercury followed right behind her, an icy mist forming around her hands in a bubbling aura.
As soon as she felt herself falling, she noted something was off- specifically, the rate at which she was falling. She wasn't so much plummeting, so much as she was...floating downward. She blinked, glancing behind her- Mercury, too, was descending in a slow-motion fall. But that wasn't what she fixated on.
"Oh my God..." The phrase was out before she could withhold the exclamation. Seeing Venus's shock, her own eyes widening in alarm, Mercury glanced behind her and gave a squeak of her own.
Venus stumbled as her feet touched down in the soft, grey powder that made up most of the surrounding landscape, gaze still fixed on the luminescent globe suspended above them.
"Pictures certainly don't do it justice," Mercury breathed as she landed, far more gracefully, beside Venus. They stood for a moment, jaws perhaps lowered a bit more than was appealing, as they beheld the Earth.
After a moment, Mercury noted something else- the fact that the atmosphere between them and the Earth was hazy, and had a faint purple glow to it. She blinked, realization dawning, as she pinched an earlobe to summon her visor. Eye movement conveyed her commands to the blue screen suddenly projected over her face, directing what she wanted analyzed. When the readouts blinked in front of her, she grinned and snapped her fingers.
"Well, that certainly makes sense," she mused out loud, hardly noting Venus was looking at her oddly- she was too busy ensuring her sensors took in proper amounts of data. She'd love to be able to recreate a shield that gave off absolutely no evidence to its presence.
"What? What is it?" Venus's demand broke into her scholar's reverie, and she flushed. They had an urgent mission, after all.
"The reason it seemed there was nothing here was that this shield," she motioned to the purple dome that encompassed them, as far as the eye could see. "Was blocking my readings, utterly and thoroughly. The interesting part is, that my sensors didn't pick up the fact that there even was a shield. Even the tiniest of barriers should have given off some sort of energy reading- bare bones minimum, it should have bounced my signals back at me. This did none of that. It's truly as if it's not there...and yet it is."
"Cool." The statement, while accurate as far as Mercury was concerned, so underplayed the sheer magnitude of the discovery, that all Mercury could do was sigh and restrain her inner geek. She pinched her earring again, and the visor vanished, despite the fact that the computer was still absorbing data at an alarming rate. She hoped her buffers and memory had enough room...
All thoughts of portals and shields and computers vanished from the minds of both Senshi as they turned sharply, half in hope, half in readiness for a fight, towards where their names had been shouted from. It took only a moment for the two of them to register the two forms running towards them, short skirts rippling, long legs leaping in slow, almost comical runs.
Relief flooded Venus's system. She'd anticipated a long, arduous search- likely a fight or two. Possibly finding nothing. This was beyond her best hopes.
"Mars, Jupiter!" Mercury cried, starting her own moon-run towards their companions. Venus followed, not sure if the odd sensation of so little gravity was fun or unnerving. It was certainly odd, the fact that they were moving so slow and yet gaining ground so quickly- it took half the effort to leap twice as far.
The quartet met halfway, embracing with sighs and smiles of relief.
"We figured it was only a matter of time before you guys came," Jupiter said, smiling with bright confidence. Venus wondered if that confidence had been there before they'd shown up.
"I was worried when none of my perception powers could reach past the barrier," Mars confessed. "I even tried Scrying into my own fire, and got nothing beside Jupiter. Not even the sense that there's an entire planet above me." The fact that anything, even an obviously superior shield, had managed to stifle her abilities was blatantly rubbing the Senshi of Fire the wrong way.
"You realize you two are gigantic idiots, right?" Venus blurted. "Jumping into a portal like that?"
Mars bristled. "We were trying to follow the Princess!"
"Though we haven't found her," Jupiter bit out, arms crossed.
"The portal shifted, just after Endymion went through, right before you two went in," Mercury explained. "She's not here- she's somewhere on Earth, somewhere on the northern ice cap."
"You know where she is and you came and got us first?" Jupiter's arms uncrossed, fists clenched. Lightning crackled around her knuckles.
Venus looked at her with a level gaze, explaining slowly, "She's in the heart of the Dark Kingdom, Jupiter. Even with all four of us, it won't be easy getting in there. Besides...there's a more urgent situation."
"What's more urgent that rescuing Usagi?" Mars demanded.
Without a word, Mercury raised her newly summoned data computer, flipped open and displaying a panning view of the Tokyo skyline. She turned it towards the incensed Senshi.
Jupiter's hostility dropped away, and Mars' own heat faded in a blink. "Oh, shit..." the darker haired girl breathed.
"Yeah," Venus snorted. "'Oh, shit' is right."
Exhaustion made her vision swim and her breath come in short, shallow gasps. She clung to the damp, rough walls of the cavernous hall. Externally, she hardly moved- she was still, and silent but for the occasional moan. Internally, she battled against her inner interloper for control over her very soul,
"Go...away..." She wheezed. She didn't need the shade of herself anymore- she'd found what she needed. Ahead of her, resting on a pedestal of darkest, glossy stone, was a silvery orb contained in an obsidian cage. She had no idea what it was, really- except that it was her way out. Somehow.
But as soon as she'd realized she was done invoking her inner shadow for directions, the malignant presence had attacked, shrieking and piercing her heart with barbs of darkness and hate.
Usagi whimpered, collapsing against the wall, one hand grasping folds of the cloak, over her heart, her other hand bracing herself as she pushed away, and half walked-half stumbled to a pillar flanking the chamber entrance. Her vision swam, blurred, then snapped into focus. The battle waged on, with Usagi keeping ahold of her sense of self by her proverbial fingernails. Her tainted counterpart lashed and thrashed and grappled for what it could wrest from Usagi's tenuous hold. With every step she took closer to her escape, the more the demon fought. Usagi could only guess at what that meant- only hope that, once she got out of this place, it would dissipate, perhaps disappear- certainly fade to the point where it would hardly be a threat anymore.
"Serenity!" The shout jolted her halfway out of her inner battle, enough so that her shadow-self seized a large portion of control from Usagi's grasp. She gasped, falling forward and barely catching herself, crashing to one knee on the hard onyx tiles. She blinked down at the reflection peering up at her from the glossy tiles- it wasn't her! The face snarling up at her was her face in features only- same nose, mouth, same heart shaped visage. But the hair that spilled down over her shoulders was reflected up at her as sheerest black, blending into the black stone flooring. The eyes glinted ruby on black, the wine-red lips pulled back in a snarl that allowed sharp ivory fangs to bite into the full, lower lip. No enveloping cloak maintaining modesty- pale, pert breasts set above taut, flat belly. The image captured her attention for only a moment, as the echo of her shouted name still reverberated in the massive chamber.
She glanced over her shoulder, silver-gold hair falling forward around her face. The figure bolting down the long, gaping corridor behind her was unmistakable, even if she'd only ever glimpsed that bare chest once. A part of her marveled that he'd even bothered with pants, once he'd woken to find her gone.
Urgency renewed, Usagi pushed herself up on wobbling feet, lurching towards the pedestal. Beneath her, her demonic reflection clawed at the floor from underneath, trapped within the onyx's glossy surface. With a final burst of strength, she fell towards it, catching herself on its edge and hissing as the impact bruised her ribcage. In her mind, the demon shrieked and raged, tugging with all its might on every single cord it had wrapped around Usagi's mind and soul. She grit her teeth, and held firm against the massive pull on her sanity. With one shaking hand, she reached for the black cage holding the floating silver globe.
"Serenity! I command you to stop!" He was furious. The amount of sheer rage that bombarded her senses was nearly enough to overwhelm her, and it was almost over then and there, but for the sake of a single finger barely brushing the surface of the silver orb.
Strength, sweet and pure, flooded up her arm to her shoulder, giving her what she needed to grip the cage, and dash it to the floor. The cage shattered, the orb exploded, filling the chamber with brilliant white light. At its very center, Usagi sensed more than she saw, her freedom. Hard hands brushed against her, gripping her- she slipped out of the cloak, out of Endymion's grasp, and fell into the heart of silver with a sigh.
"The whole planet?" Jupiter peered up at the Earth. Below the clouds, the outline of the America's was visible, still mostly brown and green. Around the edges of the globe's horizon, though, solid white was rapidly encroaching.
"Soon, yes, the whole planet will be enveloped in ice. Japan, Europe, Asia- they're all already swallowed up." Mercury wasn't looking at the planet, but at her computer, tapping away. "The more the ice swallows, the faster it spreads. Whatever spell the Dark Kingdom used, it's feeding itself from what it encompasses."
"Dead, most of them. Hypothermia, suffocation, drained by the spell, any one of those things would kill a normal person. All three?" Venus's words were clipped, near emotionless. Her family was in Europe. Mercury's and Mars' in Japan. Perhaps Jupiter was the luckiest, with no family to lose.
There had to be a way to undo it.
There was always a way.
"That's odd." Mercury's voice and a beeping from her computer broke the severe silence that had enveloped them. All three looked away from the Earth and to their resident genius.
"What is it?" Mars moved as if to peer over her comrade's shoulders. Mercury's fingers were flying.
"An energy signal, from the northern icecap- right where we deduced the Dark Kingdom's signal is strongest-"
As she spoke, there was a spike of bright white light that burst, suddenly, above the cloud bank hovering over the north pole. It was brief, and small, but brilliantly bright.
"What in the world-" Venus took a step forward, staring at the spot where the beam had been.
"An attack?" Mars clenched a fist, red heat rising from between her fingers.
"No," Mercury replied. "That energy spike wasn't Dark Kingdom energy-"
Any further explanation she had was cut off, as a twin lancing beam exploded a kilometer away, towards the center of the purple dome, piercing up and through the flickering shield. For a brief moment the barrier fluctuated, fading altogether for a handful of seconds, before flickering back.
The four Senshi stared, unmoving, at one another for a half second, then sped off towards it's origin. Mercury's computer was beeping wildly, and she gave a gasp as she read what it told her.
"What is it? Mercury, what are we going into?" Venus demanded, frustrated at how slow their leaps were. In truth they were advancing quickly- but it didn't at all feel like it.
Mercury shook her head.
"Ami, we need to know what we're facing!" She snapped. Mercury shook her head again.
"It's not dangerous." And that was all she would say. She didn't want to get their hopes up. It simply couldn't be this easy.
Karin blinked. Leaned back from the eyepiece. Blinked again, looked up with her unaided eyes. Blinked. Rubbed her eyes. Put her face back down to the telescope. The perfect circle encompassing a portion of the sky came into sharp focus, the image held within perfectly unmistakable.
But it was impossible.
She had to be imagining it. Without looking away, afraid the vision would fade, she reached blindly with one hand for her cellphone-
A flicker of lavender across the telescope's line of sight, and then nothing but puckered grey dust and a scattering of silvery stones and blackened boulders.
But...it had been there. She was certain of it.
A glorious city, a crumbled cityscape... And a silver palace, in ruins, right beside a version of Mare Serenatis that was an actual sea.
Karin straightened up from the telescope, staring up at the Moon with unaided eyes. Why did she have the feeling she was suddenly privy to a desperately precious secret? Moreover, why was she resisting the powerful urge to sob and cry, as if remembering something that had been lost?
Shaking herself, Karin turned and went back inside- a good dose of rum and coke was calling to her.
Safety- safety and nostalgia. Ruined, crumbled, a mere echo of what it once had been, and this place still somehow inspired a powerful wave of deja vu. Usagi looked around at the broken pillars, the cracked remnants of huge white tiles, crumbling walls and shattered fountains. This place had been beautiful once- she knew it just by looking around, and from the whisper of her own memories. Even as she sat, naked and staring around her, ghosts of her past flitted across her field of vision. A girl, silver-haired and silk-clad, running down the pathway now marked only by the faintest traces of half-buried flagstones. Behind her, a quarter of women, long-legged and bearing the colors of their Planets, running with only partial intention of actually catching her. Bubbling laughter, faint and airy, teased her ears. Tears threatened to overflow. They'd been so happy, here.
Her demon was suppressed. Drained, weak, barely more than a whisper of a presence, it was still there. It gave one final, promising hiss in the back of her mind, then succumbed to slumber. Usagi breathed a sigh that was half relief, half despair. She'd hoped it's existence had been dependant on her proximity to the Dark Kingdom. Now, it seemed, it would stay with her -albeit in a weakened state- regardless of where she was. The Moon was certainly as far away from the Dark Kingdom as she could reasonably get!
The Moon... Part of her reeled. Another part, the part that remembered power, royal obligations, and bigger stakes than one planet barely flinched. This was home, after all. It had been then, it still was now in a nostalgic way, and would forever be. It was where Serenity had lived, and died.
She pushed herself to shaky feet, brushing aside the temptation to try to cover herself. It was useless, and there was no one to see her here, anyway. Besides, she had more pressing issues. Like how to get back to Earth, and her friends... Or even, how the hell she was breathing when she wasn't transformed. They'd figured out long ago that as Senshi, they could survive extreme environments far better than any human, including limited atmospheres and oxygen. But she wasn't transformed-
A faint breeze brushed Usagi's hair forward over her shoulders, sending the silky streamers fluttering and floating in the lesser gravity. She blinked. The locks were purest silver.
Well, perhaps not transformed, but she certainly wasn't human at the moment, either.
Faintly, a part of her wondered at how, exactly, her body could shift back and forth between species and she not feel a thing. A question for Ami, she was sure.
She brought her hands to cup above her heart, closing her eyes and delving inward. Without pause the Crystal flickered into existence between her curved palms, emitting a soft, warm white glow. Usagi smiled down at it with mixed affection and distaste. So much strife, over something so little...
Her attention was caught by something far to her right. She blinked at it, then moved to approach the large stone disk nestled in a pile of grey dirt, tilted at a slight angle. The pattern carved into it was unlike anything Usagi had ever seen. Marginally resembling an open bloom, the linework was both beautiful and dizzying. It had begun glowing, pulsing softly in sync with the Crystal.
"Usagi!" How, exactly, the word reached her with such force on her eardrums, given the fact that there was very little in the way of oxygen to carry such volume, Usagi wasn't exactly sure, and didn't exactly care once she saw who had shouted!
Her grip on the Crystal faltered, and the glow vanished as the little bauble disappeared back inside her chest. Not caring about her nude state, Usagi leaped up and darted towards the four Senshi currently leaping their way in almost comical slow motion towards her. When at last they met, it was amid tears and exclamations of relief.
"How did you get here?" Mercury was the last to release her, asking her question through tearful sniffles. Usagi wiped her own watering eyes, ignoring the discomfort her nudity was beginning to push to the forefront of her mind. She crossed her arms over her chest.
"N-not sure...there was this globe, all silvery... And I touched it, and I was here." She knew how it sounded, knew she should know more. Any way in or out of the Dark Kingdom could only help them.
"What were you looking at?" Mars looked past Usagi. She turned to look where her raven-haired Senshi was looking, and saw that the tilted disk of stone was still pulsing, humming almost now that she was paying attention.
"It started doing that when I checked to see that I could use the Crystal again." And now, she could feel the Crystal responding to the disk, even as it nestled somewhere inside here. She pressed a hand to her heart, and moved towards the disk. Her Senshi followed, flanking her to avoid getting tangled in the floating lengths of silver hair. She went to the disk, kneeling down on one knee, and pulling out the Crystal, drawing on it harder than she had before. As if the very ruins themselves were responding, every shard or crumbled piece of pearly stone began to glow along with the disk. Usagi herself began to eminate a faint light, as if lit from within. The glow around her intensified, solidified, and by the time a gown of softest, lightest silk settled around her, there was an sheer image floating above the disk.
She was small, the image of the woman that hovered and flickered over the center of the disk, barely as tall as Usagi's hand was long. Her hair was pulled up into a mirror of Usagi's own, faint lavender kissing the shadows of her white locks. She was impossibly slender, and in life would have been tall and graceful. Wings fluttered out behind her, sheerest gossamer that was barely visible. She looked young, and yet the mantle of the ages was settled around her like a well-worn cloak, even in only this echo of her image. And she was looking up at Usagi- no, she was looking at Serenity with the deepest, proudest love. Serenity's breath hitched her throat, as behind her the four Senshi slowly dropped to their knees.
And she choked out, "Mother..."
To Be Continued.
Sorry this was so long in coming. I decided to take my last break before graduating college and actually...well, take a break. Two weeks of lounging, sleeping, and eating an entire double chocolate cherry cake by myself (can't decide whether or not to love or hate my fiance for getting it for me...the day I dedicate myself to my wedding diet, no less...) and my muse is back on track.
And yes, Karin is a real person, a friend of mine studying Astronomy. Thanks for waiting, all!