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Beginning Notes: Wow... It's been a long time since the last update. I apologize for how long this chapter took, but Real Life and writers block have been kicking my ass.
So now, without further ado; On with the Show!
The Dark Side of the Moon
By: Almech Alfarion (Child of Fire)
Chapter IV: Shadow Games
Darkness beyond light whirled through Ranma's perception as she swam through the murky depths of the shadow-realm. Just as the shadows of normal-space were more natural lighting to her than beyond their embrace, the sub-realm she entered when she became one with those same shadows felt more real than the existence beyond its confines. If not for her duty and the very real dangers of staying within it for too long the Senshi of Eris firmly believed she would never leave. The perpetual midnight of Cronus Station's interior mixed with its flickering lights to provide a twisting, ever changing labyrinth of interconnected pathways that was a challenge to navigate even after having been on the station for a month now. Solid matter and the laws of physics meant little within the eternal sea of darkness and even time itself flowed at a different rate.
Passing through where bulkheads would be outside the realm and shifting her relative elevation without care, only concerned with following the safest routs to her destination. 'Up ahead and slightly to the left' she saw it through a momentary parting of tides. As though following the will of her magic's other half the constantly shifting mass of crisscrossed path was unmistakable to her trained perception, and there was only one place on the station that could produce such an effect within the shadow-realm. She needed to hurry though. She could already feel the realm's piercing cold slowly beginning to seep into her. There was only a short while left before she would need to leave, but harsh experience had taught her that haste could be just as dangerous as staying too long...
Surfing a stable stream that seemed to lead straight to the outskirts of the mass was an easy enough task, but her destination lay within and the much smaller flows. Though slower and easier to navigate than the larger currents, they were more unstable as well despite the night beyond this realm adding to the darkness. Carefully picking her way through the tides of shadow Ranma found an area where the darkness was somewhat heavier than normal. By now only the fact that she was more phantom than form within this realm was keeping her from shivering uncontrollably or developing hypothermia, even as she moved to an area that was otherwise indistinguishable from the rest and willed herself back into the normal world.
Color and form, taste, touch, smell and sound all came rushing back to her senses and only years of practice kept her from violently shivering as the permeating sensation of cold was momentarily inverted before the searing heat bled off in an instant. As always the redhead deftly ignored the conflicting feelings of relief and regret that accompanied her reentrance into the physical realm, for that way lie madness, and instead she set about examining the clearing deep within Cronus Station's Central Park.
A faint breeze blew through the leaves, making them rustle slightly and a shaft of pale light in the middle of the clearing fell through a gap in the dense canopy. Artificial night had descended over the ceiling above and today the skies were clear enough for Ranma to see the stars twinkling beyond the spectacular view of Saturn's rings as the gas-world's moons lazily drifted along their orbits.
She spent a few minutes just admiring the view, seeing as she had finished all her tasks for the day and she had no pressing matters to attend to. So lost was she in her study of the firmament above that she didn't hear someone approaching until a twig snapped behind her. Whirling around into a low crouch on instinct, the redhead internally berated herself over dropping her guard before noticing exactly who it was that had managed to surprise her. Standing just on the edge of the clearing's tree line and tinted in the grayscale shades of her dark-vision stood none other than the girl she had been attempting to discreetly approach in vain for the last month.
Conduct drilled into both her and Nabiki's heads during the crash course in etiquette and protocol Miss. Meiou gave them in the last year of their training snapped unconsciously to the fore of the redhead's mind as she quickly turned her defensive stance into a low bow.
"My apologies, Your Highness. I did not realize you were there. I was simply admiring the night's sky before curfew..."
The young woman just stood there, looking at her for a few moments in apparent surprise at the formal address even as Ranma noticed her mistake. Someone with normal vision would have a very hard time indeed seeing her as deep as she was in the shadows, let alone identifying someone so quickly. The moment passed, however, and the Princess stepped further into the clearing, inclining her head in acknowledgment of the redhead's address with a slight smile. "No apology is necessary."
Ranma could only blink at the abbreviated response, as the Cronian Princess walked into the center of the clearing to look at the sky above herself. The appropriate reply should have gone on to either include a dismissal or request for a name and it was obvious that the omission was deliberate. This was an opportunity that Ranma didn't want to let pass, but protocol dictated that the Princess make the next move. By leaving her response open ended as she had the redhead was forced to wait unless she wanted to come off as rude in the extreme.
Shaking herself to regain her wits, the hidden Senshi quickly assessed the rest of her surroundings, noting immediately that the Princess's guard detail was conspicuously absent. 'Odd, that...' She thought before turning her attention back to the girl in question. There were many things about her current actions that were setting Ranma's pragmatic sensibilities on edge. 'No guards, and I used this particular clearing specifically because it's well hidden from the main patrols...' she thought while turning her eyes back to the sky above, 'and yet she stands less than an arm's length away from a complete stranger...?'
A quiet sigh once more brought her full attention back to the subject of her thoughts. The teen was still looking upward, though her eyes seemed unfocused now, as though she wasn't really seeing the sky above. Ranma may not have been nearly as skilled at reading people as her absent partner was, but she still knew enough to know that something seemed to be weighing on the young princess's mind.
"Would you care to talk about it your highness?" she quietly asked, deciding that the social faux pas was worth the risk, "That is... if you don't mind my asking?"
'I was never much good at tact anyway...' the redhead thought as her companion for the evening seemed to rouse herself with her words. Blinking a few times the girl turned to look back at her. The sadness she had seen in the young woman's eyes a month ago was once more on full display, though there was an undercurrent of guarded hope in them that confused Ranma.
"'And whom might I be, that the stars above would listen to my woes. For they are faceless strangers, destined to depart upon the morrow with the rising of the sun.'"
"'But unto the evening they do return, dear Raven, for as the sun doth rise, so too it must set and with its departure the night is born anew...'" The words came softly before Ranma even realized she had spoken but the hidden message was there and she couldn't help the soft smile she gave the lonely young woman. "Unto Dawn by Olivia Willows... Forgive me for speaking out of turn Princess. I am known as Ranma Saotome."
"As I said before; no apology is necessary, Ms Saotome." The sadness in her eyes lightened a little when it was clear that Ranma had understood and she turned her gaze back to the stars. Silence fell on them once again but it was less tense than it had been and the redheaded Senshi noted that as the minutes wore on the Princess became more relaxed. It also gave her time to think as she turned her own attention upward again. The quote the Princess had used was a very, Very old one. The reason she knew it by heart and had completed it without even realizing was because "Olivia Willows" had been a pen name used by Miss Meiou roughly a century before Serenity I had come into power. Setsuna still maintained the original manuscripts, written on honest to goodness paper of all things. Ranma and Nabiki had memorized them from front to back, often using phrases from the omitted chapters as coded messages, but even over three thousand years later their mentor's published works maintained a place as classic literature.
"The hour is late," Princess Hotaru eventually said into the comfortable silence that had fallen between the two, "and curfew will begin soon, Ms. Saotome." Ranma shook herself from her silent musings just in time to see the younger woman turn from her own inspection of the sky and look at her with a small smile before turning to walk away. "If you wish, and should you have the time, I would like to meet you here again, 'For as the twilight descends we may once more gaze upon the stars, knowing them as they are: friends'."
The redhead couldn't help but smile as her unsuspecting charge retreated further into the shadows. 'It looks like things just got a little more interesting...'
Setsuna sighed in frustration once more as she stood before the Time Gates, idly twirling the all but useless key shaped staff she mounted the Garnet Orb on these days. Said sphere was currently floating a foot or so in front of her, linked to the gates and emitting streams of red light in patterns incomprehensible to all eyes but hers. The past was usually easy to gaze into unhindered. Easy, except when it came to distinguishing between fact and the fiction laid over the true events surrounding the fall of the Solar and Eridian Kingdoms and trying to do just that had been an on-again-off-again project of hers for the last two and a half centuries. The trip to Eris where they discovered the remains of Ranma's predecessor had given the Time Senshi the inspiration to finally identify the source of the energy field blocking her sight.
Knowing and applying that knowledge, however, were too different things in this case.
She once more cursed herself for taking her orders to "identify and prevent external threats" so literally, seeing as the tunnel vision the task had given her was one of the factors that led to the kingdoms' untimely disappearances. She hadn't even realized how far things had gone astray until she felt the ripples caused by the virtual temporal rewrite. Virtual because unless someone went back in time it was all but impossible to actually rewrite history in the manner observed and if that had been the case the "ripples" would have been more akin to temporal tsunamis.
The thrice cursed "Taboo's" laid on her when she was given the orders be damned, it was her duty as sworn upon her appointment as Senshi of the Realm, Guardian of Pluto and Caretaker of the Gates of Time to defend the kingdom from all threats, both external and internal. She was a Senshi for goodness sake, and while she never held, or even aspired to, the political power the Sailor Scouts currently possessed the station still carried a great deal of authority when it had actually meant something.
'I could have easily appropriated help from the kingdom's military forces. It was their job before it was mine after all...' she mentally groused to herself, randomly adjusting the settings to try the effectiveness of different configurations, 'But no~o... I had to go and do it all by mys-... Hello... what have we here?'
There had been a momentary shift in the temporal overlay as she concentrated on the "static zone" centered on the actual events of the kingdoms' destructions that she never seemed to be able to break through no matter how hard she tried. It had been the briefest of moments, but it had happened none-the-less. Setsuna couldn't help but grin as she backtracked through the settings she had been rapidly cycling through until it flickered again. Steadily narrowing down the correct settings the Senshi of Time couldn't help the vindictive excitement that was slowly building in her as she identified the specifics behind what seemed to be creating the small cracks in the virtual overlay. 'Of course! The Future is a manifestation of Chaos but the past is Static! The most likely source of the field is the Ginzuishou which is a tool of order. Stasis! Of course back-shifting the gate's viewpoint to see potential alternate outcomes would introduce enough chaos to disrupt it!"
It wasn't technically time travel, seeing as her own temporal position never changed from the "present", but the ability to see the "could have beens" had been a source of both amusement and frustration throughout the last three millennia of her life. 'Two and a half centuries of trying to break the block, and it's this of all things that actually works!'
It was another minute of fiddling with the settings before she began to frown. Chaotic and unpredictable as the potential futures may have been, there apparently weren't enough "missed opportunities" so radically different as to create enough chaos to break the block, and back-stepping too far from the "static zone" had the false history overriding them completely with its own possibilities, further reinforcing its "validity" as it always had when she'd tried this approach before. Couple that with the overbearing presence of order, both societal and magical, throughout the Solar System for the last couple centuries and there simply wasn't enough chaos. Thinking on the new dilemma for a few moments her eyes shifted briefly to the "splitting hairs" image of the "present's" future. Up until she had first detected Ranma's chaotic magic through the gates there had only been a few "splits" in the time stream and she could accurately predict major events nearly two years in advance. Now, however, there were thousands and even more possibilities formed even as she watched, making predicting what would happen in the next two days a challenge. 'Ranma's chaotic influence at work...' the Time Senshi thought with no small amount of awe even as an idea began to form in her head.
'I need to break this completely...' she thought with certainty, looking between the "static zone" and the growing possibilities the future now held. 'If I can break through this I may be able to redirect the chaotic shockwaves to destroy the "Serenity Field" completely and return the natural balance...'
'I'll need Ranma's help to do it though...' was her final thought before the Time Senshi teleported to her study in Charon Castle. Ranma was still on her mission after all and she was still reorganizing her plans and forming new contingencies short of "The Contingency"...
She shivered as the thought crossed her mind. 'I hope it doesn't come to that...'
Nabiki sighed in frustration as she stared angrily at the displays in front of her. Today was another "off day" from her direct observations of the Terran King and though she would have rather been personally scouting out the industrial complexes again, such work could be left to other agents. Data needed to be analyzed and her network of contacts needed to be maintained...
Surrounded by enough privileged information to upset the balance of Terran politics and organized crime for years to come, the Solar Senshi felt right at home. Maps, equipment manifests, personnel rosters, financial statements, transcripts on backroom deals and countless other forms of raw data danced before her eyes, shifting and changing with the slightest hand gestures. Right now she was analyzing the latest data-drop from another one of her contacts, integrating it into the information she already had available while simultaneously rearranging the data to form new connections in an effort to get a better view of the big picture here on Terra.
So far she wasn't liking what she saw...
'Too many players...' she thought, 'There's just too many players working at opposing agendas here on Terra.'
On one hand, it had been three months into her stay on Terra and leads on the Lunar Brotherhood's phantom-leadership were still scarce. It had taken her and her network of agents half of that time to track down and successfully hack all of their fragmented data-networks on Terra. At the moment the brunette could say with no small degree of confidence that they couldn't fart without her eventually finding out which side of their ass they farted out of when it came to their local operations.
Whoever was controlling the group, however, was skilled at covering their tracks. Even they made mistakes once in a while though and those told her that whoever it was, was definitely not on Terra on a regular basis, if at all.
She had already ruled out the Lunar Queen. Aside from simply not matching what Nabiki knew of the woman's preferred methods she had gone a step further and coordinated with Setsuna's network and confirmed that the Oppressor was too busy maintaining direct oversight on the hunt for Ranma and herself to account for any of the brotherhood's recent movements. That still left several possible persons of interest with the necessary resources and connections scattered throughout the Lunar Court. Despite having already ruled out more than a few of those by working the problem from both sides, there were still too many to easily narrow down the list further without more information.
On the other hand were the more local issues...
If it wasn't Senator Beryl nearly inciting another riot with her xenophobic rhetoric or the steadily shifting political lines in the senate towards the 'Earth First' agenda, it was King Endymion vanishing at odd times only to reappear hours later looking far more content than before or one of Nabiki's agents reporting on the divisions forming between the Shitennou while out of the public eye. The former, while annoying and necessary to keep a very close eye on, weren't nearly as concerning as the latter.
Endymion disappearing to the Stars knew where, the first occurring when the Lunar Queen came to 'pay her respects' to the late king, was beyond distressing to Nabiki and she only took comfort in the fact that no one else seemed to know where he went either. Then there was the Shitennou who, in addition to being the King's bodyguards and last line of defense, were well known to be four of the closest friends imaginable. If there was a rift forming between that friendship, for any reason, then something more troubling than usual was at work. Supposition would lead to the belief that the King's seemingly random disappearances were what were causing the fractures as they stressed over where he might have run off to, but something in her 'gut' told Nabiki that there was more to it than that.
Hours training in harsh conditions, playing out scenarios and war games designed to prepare her and Ranma for literally any situation both imaginable and not had taught her to trust that 'gut instinct' even if their intel told them otherwise.
But beyond all that was the apparent third faction making a play on recent events...
The soldiers she had encountered while scouting Atlantis' Lower Industrial wards were definitely part of an independent faction, and being an unknown she had put out feelers to try and get a read on their motives like she had every other faction on Terra.
They were like ghosts.
The only reason Nabiki even knew about them was because she encountered their patrols, but after that it was like they all but ceased to exist. Agents sent to scout out the area later on reported no activity. The data she had collected during that first encounter had since been analyzed and it was clear that the patrol patterns indicated they were guarding a more or less central location, but having been called away to deal with Endymion's first 'disappearance' Nabiki had only compiled enough information to give a general direction of where that 'central location' might be.
It was like when the previous king had been assassinated all over again, and Nabiki hated it.
She was cross-referencing data on one of the Weapons-Cartels that operated on Atlantis when a panel materialized marked "Incoming Call: Amaterasu: Urgent" which she immediately began cycling the encryption protocols for.
"Nabiki!" Amaterasu panicked as soon as the Mau's image actualized on the call-screen, "He's gone again! I also have a lead on where he might be going!"
"Where!" The Solar Senshi had a hard time keeping the excitement out of her voice, 'Finally, a lead!' "Come on, Ama, now's not the time to leave me hanging in the breeze!"
"Kingfish got a call from someone just before he vanished. That was ten minutes ago. I didn't manage to get a trace on the call, but I did manage to track him to sector C-9 before he dropped off the grid." The orange felinoid said as she visibly calmed, "Here's the rub though; Kingfish may have fallen off the system, but Atlantis Security tagged a shuttle leaving the Arcology; EX-Class security clearance! That's when I called."
Nabiki had already shut down her Data-Feeds, transferring Amaterasu's call to the HUD of her ZERO Armor, and was sprinting out of the safe-house in the direction of the nearest of her hidden hangers at this. "Which way did it go?!" she nearly screamed at her partner.
"Hacked camera feeds show the shuttle on a North by Northwest heading. I'll key in more exact coordinates directly to your feed." Amaterasu said matter-of-factly with a look of concentration on her face before the relevant data scrolled across Nabiki's HUD. "There aren't any satellites directly overhead that I could hack quickly enough without being noticed by someone so I can't track it past that, but if its heading doesn't deviate too much it will make landfall; ETA five minutes at the speed it was going."
Nabiki thought her orange-furred friend sounded particularly proud of herself, regardless of the latter point, as she strapped herself into the seat of a stealth-shuttle docked in her hanger. She couldn't really blame the Mau, though, even given the seriousness of the situation. If they had been able to track Endymion this far, then someone else had probably been able to as well, and not everyone with an interest could be considered friendly.
"Any idea where it might be going?" she asked as she started flipping through the startup sequence.
"No idea!" The pseudo-cat chirped with a cheerful grin, "Referencing to existing maps of the area where it will most likely make landfall show no known settlements or instillations for several hours in any direction. He wouldn't be able to make it back before too many people notice he's missing if he was heading to any of them."
"Great..." The Spy said with a sarcastic sigh, finishing the power up sequence, "In other-words, he could be going anywhere in-between. Nothing for it but to search the whole damn area until I find something, I guess..." The docking-clamps released and Nabiki ignored the customary moment of subtle vertigo as the shuttle began to hover freely over the deck plate.
"Good Luck." said Amaterasu, still with that false cheerfulness as the bay-doors began to open. The feed cut before Nabiki could give a proper retort, leaving her to grumble to herself for a moment. With a mental shake to get back to the task at hand she keyed another command on the holographic control-consol and activated the stealth systems before throttling full-forward a mere dozen feet over the waves below.
"And The Cronus Titan's Win!"
Cheers and jeers rang throughout the stadium as the final set ended and the match was called. Ranma sat with a content smile, tuning out the final announcements and merely enjoying the atmosphere for a moment as her new friend nearly bounced in her seat in excitement. Seated next to her was a currently disguised Princess Hotaru Tomoe and the redhead couldn't help but wonder at the circumstances that had lead them to where they were now.
'A lot can happen in four months...' she thought wryly, standing and stretching for a moment as the seating around them steadily began to clear. Holding her hand out to her friend, Ranma couldn't help but smile slightly as the younger woman laughed as she accepted the offer.
"So, Tau," she grinned, having to raise her voice somewhat to be heard over the din of departing spectators surrounding them as they began making their own way to the street, "How was your first Real Rocket-ball game?"
"That Was Awesome!" Hotaru nearly yelled before breaking out into excited laughter again, "I mean, I've seen a few matches at, school, but I've never seen one played like that before! And you go to events like this all the time?"
"Yeah," the Redhead agreed, passing over the younger woman's momentary pause as though she hadn't noticed, "Though the circuits on the other outer-worlds aren't nearly as good. Personally, I prefer to be down in the pit!"
"What's it like?"
"I..." Ranma stumbled over her thoughts for a moment, knowing what was being asked despite the question's ambiguity but needing to give it real consideration regardless. The currently green-haired, blue-eyed princess waited patiently, accepting Ranma's momentary silence in stride. They both knew that they were still keeping secrets from one-another after four months of steadily growing friendship, but the things they had shared so far were done so with an honesty that surprised Ranma, all things considered. It formed a unique cornerstone to their friendship, and somehow it all worked. The question was innocuous enough, however, where Ranma wouldn't need to leave anything out, as soon as she could actually figure out how to answer that is...
"I don't really know how to describe it." She finally conceded as the pair left the arena and turned onto the strip it was located on. "Exhilarating, I guess? I get down in the pit and all there is, is the game. It consumes my world and everything else is somehow... unimportant. The adrenaline rushing through me. The jerry flying through the air. The feel of my Racket in my hands as I intercept, pass, score and so-on. Win or lose, it doesn't matter in the end, except that it all adds up to a feeling of competitive accomplishment that I can't really put into words without falling woefully short; 'For what's an experience, but the sum expression of our feelings?'."
Hotaru giggled at the quote, making the redhead smile as they turned into a small noodle soup stand for a quick bite.
"So..." Hotaru hesitantly began after they had been served, "I've been thinking... Would you be able to teach me how to play like you do?"
"Hm?" Ranma blinked in surprise, noodles dangling halfway out her mouth as she gave her friend a queer look for a second before slurping them up the rest of the way." I don't know... haven't your instructors ever let you..."
She stopped as the hidden princess seemed to fold in on herself for a moment. "Not really." She said. Ranma almost had to strain her ears to hear her friend over the din of the crowds behind them, "The ones... my family hire are only concerned with 'grooming' me to fill mother's roll when it's time; 'There isn't time for silly games' they say, and I only get out to be around other people once in a while, and never to do anything like watch a game... The ones sent from Luna are worse though... They're more concerned with indoctrinating me as a good little weapon."
Ranma really did need to strain her acutely trained ears to hear the last part and was relieved to hear the genuinely honest revulsion in the younger woman's nearly silent voice. Hesitantly, she reached over and lightly patted her friend on the back in what she hoped was a reassuring manner. That was probably the most personal, not to mention dangerous, revelation Hotaru had given her to date, and Ranma knew that sooner or later she would need to reveal something equivalent to make up for it. For now though, her friend needed her.
"I'm rarely allowed to even watch matches at the academy, and that's only if I'm caught up with my other studies and... training."
"Well!" Ranma said suddenly, making Hotaru jump a little, "That's a situation we will need to remedy Girlfriend! A life without having ever played Rocket-ball is a Life Less Vibrant! Let's see if we can't get the rest of our meals to go before finding some rackets and a place out of the way enough not to disturb anyone too much and I'll show you what I can!" Ranma finished her little speech with much exaggerated glaring and pointed fingers which earned her a smile from her previously morose friend. 'Good, that distracted her enough to stop before she said more than I can make up for without revealing too much...'
Hotaru blinked at her untouched noodles in surprise for a moment as Ranma flagged the chef for two to-go carriers before taking a tentative bite. She paused for a moment at the flavor before cocking her head to one side, slowly chewing and almost deliberately swallowing. 'I suppose with the royal chefs at the tower she's never had ramen before.' Ranma thought, limiting the chuckling to her thoughts.
"So Tau," she said, letting the grin come into the open, "How're the noodles?
The currently green haired girl thought for a moment before nodding. "Spicy." Was all she said, and that was all it took for Ranma to start laughing. Collecting their now boxed up food Ranma stood and paid the chef, adding a more than reasonable tip to which she received a pleasant smile from the man, but she could see the genuine gratitude and a bit of relief trying to hide in his eyes and posture. The two friends left the stand in comfortable silence, each carrying a takeout box, the younger not noticing the slip of paper Ranma had passed to the chef as she paid him.
"So," Ranma started the conversation again, ignoring the feelings her mage-senses had started sending her when she has asked for the takeout boxes, "I remember this one time when the cat of a friend of mine got into the stasis box a little over a year ago..."
Back at the stand agent Mu-Tzu read over the message he had been given again, committing it to memory before shoving the paper it was written on into the burner under his ramen pot.
'Harlequin and the Trinity have arrived on the Harvester's doorstep. Inform the others and keep hidden.
May the stars shine their favor upon us,
Sailor Venus stepped off the royal transport, surveying the private docking bay reserved for the inner scouts for the next week during their visit to Cronus Station. Behind her followed Sailors Mercury, Mars, Jupiter and the "Agents" assigned to assist them in tracking down dissidents to the rightful throne.
Greeting them was the Saturnian Queen Yuna and her own entourage, rich purple hair trailing behind her several feet and wearing matching robes accented with a wide silver length of cloth tied around her waist by a large bow in the back. Her daughter, the Princess Heir Hayate Tomoe, stood behind and to the right of lesser queen wearing her own purple themed Sailor Fuku, hair a few shades darker than her mother's trailing down to below her knees. The woman held the Silence Glaive at attention in her right hand. Behind her and standing with what Venus scornfully thought was only just the proper amount of subservience were the Princes Heir's three oldest daughters. Forming a corridor on either side of the group were a contingent of Saturn's Royal guards, their archaic, in Venus' opinion, armour and polearms gleaming in the artificial light.
"Greetings, Sailors Venus, Mercury, Mars and Jupiter. I hope your stay here on Cronus Station is pleasant." Queen Yuna said with a mockingly courteous smile.
"As do we, Queen Saturn." Venus had to resist the urge to sneer. This woman was higher than her in standing within the courts only through her position as queen of Saturn, though thankfully not above Venus' own mother. The royalty of Saturn were barely above the enigmatic Sailor Pluto within the courts, but just like the time guardian nothing could be proven. That wouldn't stop Venus if she saw an opportunity, however...
Beyond that the woman still controlled a considerable amount of magical power, despite having passed the mantle of Sailor Saturn along with the Silence Glaive to her Heir. Thankfully, neither of them possessed the world shattering power the progenitor of their line had held.
'speaking of which...'
"And where is your youngest daughter, Sailor Saturn? I was expecting your heir to be here as well."
"Princess Hotaru was feeling unwell." Sailor Saturn said succinctly and Venus didn't bother to hide the frown this time as she rearranged her plans. Venus, while having no official authority over the outer scouts, still held standing above Sailor Saturn as commander of the inners, and would deal with the older woman's veiled insubordination appropriately. In addition, Queen Serenity had invested a lot into ensuring Hotaru Tomoe's loyalty to her and her alone, and it was Venus' job to evaluate just how successful those efforts had been. It wouldn't do for a girl who could destroy worlds to be outside of the True Queen's control after all. But that would need to wait; she had ceremony and protocol to deal with first.
"Very well." She said, "If she is indisposed, then we shall simply proceed without her." Turning abruptly she addressed the agent in charge of overseeing their investigations. "Commander, see to our accommodations." She ordered. The nondescript man gave her a simple nod of acknowledgment before the agents departed to carry out their real duties.
Hotaru Tomoe, Princess of Saturn, walked through the run-down wards of Cronus Station and couldn't help but have her heart reach out to those around her. She could feel the lost and downtrodden souls of the citizens she knew she would one day preside over, and knew that like her mother and grandmother she would do everything in her power to give them whatever small hope she could. The Lunar Crown was uncaring at best and outright hostile towards such actions at worst, but not even the knowledge that even now she and her guardsmen were being tailed by several agents sent by the Moon Queen for their past actions in that regard could deter such thoughts.
She was disguised once more today, and her guards were equally hidden amongst the throngs of people surrounding them, though no less capable of conducting their duties for it. This way she could more easily mingle with her people, listening to rumors and providing aid to those who needed it through kind words or healing their physical injuries. Her mother had said it was to better prepare her for her future role if she was able to better empathize with the common man, and over the years she had been doing this the youngest Cronian princess had come to agree. Hotaru wasn't concerned with being recognized. Those who did were for the most part citizens of Cronus Station and wouldn't give her identity away out of patriotic loyalty to Saturn, and perhaps more importantly gratitude for what she was doing on a more personal level.
It was for these reasons that she wasn't concerned with the recent friendship she had somehow found in the woman who called herself Ranma Saotome, though Hotaru didn't know if that was really her name. The elder red haired woman was an enigma that she was determined to figure out, but at the same time Hotaru knew that she wasn't in any danger from her mysterious friend.
Some would say it was foolish and dangerous to trust anyone in the way she did with Ranma, but somehow, despite the more or less open admissions to having secrets something about her friend felt genuine in such a way that told the young princess that such trust was not misplaced.
Neither Hotaru, her guards, nor their tails sent by the Sailor Scouts noticed the shadow tailing all of them dropping from a scaffold and onto another shadowed figure hiding in a darkened crevice three stories above their heads.
Ranma shook her head in contempt as the shrouded figure beneath her dissolved into sand and began to "blow away" as the magic that held the construct together dissipated. She had five samples of the dust for analysis already, so didn't bother trying to collect the fine particles. Instead the assassin opted to pick up the weapon it left behind, giving it a quick rundown to determine both its make and model as a recoilless sniper rifle of Terran in origin, but not from any of the manufacturers she was familiar with along with what appeared to be a suppression modification to reduce the noise it made when fired.
Looking through the scope for anymore potential threats to her charge's life Ranma quickly scanned the area ahead for any threats to her charge's life. Not seeing any for the time being the hidden redhead attached it to the back of her ZERO Armour, electromagnets snapping it securely into place before she once more faded into the shadows to brave the dark sea. Relative moments later she reemerged from another shadowed alcove ahead of the Princess' party and unslung her new acquisition, expertly shouldering it before again scoping out the area ahead for any potential threats.
'Two and one at three and eleven o-clock, only one has another weapon.' She thought, narrowing her eyes at the identically shrouded figures ahead of her and the difficulty in timing the kills so that no one would notice her before the assailants could make their own move while mentally mapping out the fastest routes to and from the nearest shadows. So far she had killed about nine of the featureless humanoid black colored golems, but the last had been the first with any kind of weapon.
'They must be getting desperate.' Ranma thought darkly as she reattached the rifle to her back before fading into the shadows again only to reappear above the pair in a freefall. The first one never had a chance to react as her boot caved its head in and its partner was caught equally flat footed as she quickly recovered from her fall and struck. Solar plexus, throat and eye positions were struck with viper fast jabs of her palms and fingers before Ranma whirled around behind the stunned figure while wrapping an arm around its neck. With a swift jerk the construct collapsed in her arms from having its neck snapped almost one hundred eighty degrees before disintegrating into sand.
Even then the silent hunter didn't stop, activating her Armour's built in active-camouflage before running out onto the scaffold while mentally cursing that there were no easily accessible shadow-paths that would take her directly to her armed target. Barely fifteen seconds had passed before she reached her next position atop a structure with a commanding view of the ward.
'ten seconds' she thought with forced calm while un-slinging her rifle again as Hotaru made her way through the strip below, unsuspecting of the danger she was in. With deliberate calm she shouldered her weapon and sighted through the scope downrange.
'seven seconds.' Hotaru was almost to the plaza that would open her up to the other sniper, but Ranma was already lining up on her target while her ZERO Armour's computer hacked the electronic aiming systems built into the scope to give her the optimal shot.
'Five seconds' she thought, the crosshairs lining up on the golem's head.
'Fire – Fire – Fire – Fire – Fire.' She silently chanted, and on the last "Fire" her finger squeezed the trigger as her mental countdown reached two seconds. The weapon in her arms jerked only slightly as it gave off a very quiet bark, flinging a projectile no larger than a grain of rice straight into her target's head causing it to explode in a cloud of sand which was soon followed by the rest of its body. Reattaching her weapon to her back Ranma quickly ran to the edge of the building where she knew there would be shadows below and jumped off.
Down below Hotaru had turned towards where Ranma had been mere moments earlier, but quickly shook the feeling off, not knowing that said redhead was already on the other side of the street, vigilantly watching from the shadows...
- End Chapter IV -
End Notes: Again with the shorter chapter, but I think that trying to push for closer to 10K would only drag out the time between chapters even more. I see this chapter as a being less introductory to the setting of my "Dark" Moon Kingdom with more transition into building towards the final confrontations that will take place during the fall.
In lighter news, I've finally figured out a general direction for the next part, and hopefully it won't take as long for the next chapter to come out, but I make no promises. Also, for anyone interested, I have "concept art" of Ranma in her Senshi Armour posted to my Deviantart page (A Link can be found at the bottom of my Profile). It's only Line-art, so if anyone wants to color it in I'd be interested to see what people come up with. I also have concepts for Nabiki and Setsuna in their Senshi Armours already drawn but I'll only be putting those up once we actually see them in the story.