A/N: I've… HEARD…. things… about the Rebellion movie… Thank goodness none of that can possibly happen here! :-)

In case you haven't heard, I'm writing an original fiction book. Link is in my profile, as ffnet doesn't allow copy pasting anymore. Still, if you find this not to be an obstacle, here's the link: smashwords com/books / view/380166

Check it out, leave a review, tell me what you think so far, 'kay?

….

Kinomoto Sakura of 2814

by Shadow Crystal Mage

Chapter 6: Everything Will Be All Right!

Disclaimer: I own none of the characters in this story. If I did… well, this would all be canon. WARNING: MAY CAUSE HEAD EXPLOSION!

….

Himari and Kuesu sincerely thought they had a chance. They brought up every logical argument they could about just trusting people who came out of the blue claiming to know famous Tokyo vigilantes, of how it wasn't their place to have anything to do with these people's problems, of how suspicious it was these people even knew about them, of how they'd just been through a major event and they weren't ready to jump into a new relationship, of how it wasn't them it was us, of how they weren't in a good place right now, of how they should just stay friends…

Then that Syaoran boy had mentioned Boy's Club and all their work went out the window. The white cat had given him a teaser, but this was straight out of the boy's mouth. Other boys in his own age group. Facing problems JUST. LIKE. HIS.

The infuriating boy had given Kuesu, Shizuku, Himari and even Lizlet a significant look and repeated significantly, "Problems just like yours." He raised a hand and mimed squeezing something round and squishy at chest height, then something striking his face.

Yuuto coughed. "Well, I don't suppose it would do any harm to meet them… just once…"

Their hearts fell. Yuuto was going to do it, and nothing short of him walking in on these people torturing Himari was going to dissuade him.

And these people were, on the whole, pretty mysterious. They didn't watch the news much. Himari found nothing interesting in what normal humans thought mattered except maybe fashion, and only in so far as it aroused Yuuto, while Kuesu didn't even have that much, her poise and self-assurance her own style. So they'd never heard of the Sailor Senshi or Green Lantern-chan or any of a bunch of people Yuuto and Rinko thought were a big deal. Both thought Superman was some kind of American Ayakashi, and looked at Yuuto in askance when he explained about space aliens. They had only their own experiences to shape what they thought of these people.

Kuesu wondered at the circumstances that would have the Edelfelt, the Tohsaka and the Lee to come together in such a strange alliance. She barely remembered the current heirs of the two families from her brief time in the Clocktower before she'd made herself scarce. They'd been polite enough to her, a marked contrast to many of her contemporaries, though mostly because they were usually too busy being at each other's' throat. If it hadn't been for that last part, she'd have remembered them with suspicion, sure that they'd be trying to use her in some manner as well. As it was, the suspicion was only just then rising, too late and on material too old to properly rise without sounding like crackpot conspiracy theory even to a Magus. The situation was strange enough that, on her own, she'd be inclined to investigate their proposal, at least to see how it benefited her.

As it was… new girl. Yuuto. Definitely not to be trusted.

Himari, for her part, was a lot more nervous, and with both more and less concrete reason. Daidouji Tomoyo was in front of her, and interested in Yuuto. The Daidouji heiress, who had a… reputation. There was nothing concrete, just a "significant pause" reputation, and shrouded in myth besides. A lot of big names were connected to her– Tatsumiya Mana, Deathstroke the Terminator, David Cain– but nothing was ever heard about what. It was like that story about her hiring Tatsumiya a few months ago, something Himari had heard weeks late and at fifth or possibly twelfth hand. She'd even sort-of confirmed it but no one knew what the job had been about. Some whispered a business rival, others something to do with that weird cult she'd set up. It all added up to a larger-than-life persona, one that began with the inexplicable deaths of several groups of mercenaries and private goons who had been sent to kidnap her when she was six.

Plus, she was frickin' weird. An outreach program for 'Troubled Ninja Youths'? Seriously?

Strangely, it was a hit with ninja parents.

Knowing all this, the girl who'd called herself 'Star' and now said her name was Sakura took on a more dangerous aura. Who was she that would have these two powerful and significant people as, for all intents and purposes, her retinue? She'd made a claim of having power of some sort. Perhaps power that exceeded theirs? That would make her a formidable enemy indeed. Good luck getting Yuuto to understand that, of course.

Their proposal sweetened by the notion of this 'Boys' Club', Yuuto had been eager to hear more about the group they'd represented. Some they'd heard of. A group of certainly rogue but so far unrestrained Magistra Magi and a Magister based in Mahora Academy. The shocking alliance between the Tohsaka, the Edelfelt and the Einzbern and their retainers in Fuyuki City, the latter surprising since the famed alchemy family had been thought dead these last five years, their knowledge lost, their creations either destroyed or sent to Atlas. Those 'Sailor Senshi' girls, who practiced some bizarre form of magic and kept showing up on the news, skewing Kuesu's attempts to search for occurrences of malevolent Ayakashi. Some little girls in Uminari city, who'd apparently set the whole thing up.

Their stated aims were even more bizarre. "To fight for truth, love and justice"? Seriously? But that seemed to be only their rhetoric; their more practical aims were, apparently, the free exchange of information in particular information needed to protect the peoples in their territories; tactical and strategic martial support upon request, with unstated forms of compensation to follow; and internal and highly placed pawns within the Mahora and Kanto magical associations as well as the Japanese government, given their casual mentions of suited men in black vans with lots of paperwork to fill out.

The girl hadn't used these exact words of course, couching them in simple words like 'work together' and 'ask for help' but it was obviously only to appeal to Yuuto's simple sensibilities. Kuesu and Himari both knew agreements between powers couldn't be so simple. Even the alliance of the Demon Slayer families were as much for convenience and to be able to keep an eye on one another as it was to follow their unified purpose. So many powers together were a powder keg waiting to explode, and they were obviously trying to hook Yuuto in to take advantage of his power for their own ends, and almost certainly putting him in great danger.

Yuuto, completely ignorant of all these thoughts, was happy to finally be talking to someone who sincerely wanted to be friends, without having to go through the unfortunate phase of Himari beating the crap out of them first so that they'd settle down and talk. This girl had such happy eyes, in comparison to either the angry eyes or the tormented eyes of the people he'd met since this all began. Her friend Tomoyo seemed pleasant too, always smiling like that and kindly offering to pay for the cakes. The big cake had already been eaten by the plushy-thing, who was lying on the table with a happy look on his face and a stomach bulging like it was from a cartoon. The boy Syaoran was still frowning, but once realized that was more his default expression rather than anything on their part, he'd relaxed. Indeed, the frown began to fade away as the boy talked to him, painting an almost paradisaical image of a group of boys who'd understand what he was going through, living with Himari and fighting demons and somehow getting into all sorts of bizarre ecchi situations like something out of a shallow harem anime or manga. Syaoran had hinted obliquely that this was not an uncommon affliction.

Yuuto, upon hearing this, resolved to a least meet these people so he can reassure them that they weren't alone in the world and that there was someone who understood their suffering(?).

Somewhere, Negi Springfield, Emiya Shiro, Yagami Vita, Illya von Einzbern and several still-to-be-revealed individuals suddenly felt warm and not as alone in the world as they thought.

All in all, it was a good day to make friends.

….

"No," Kuesu told Yuuto.

"But…" Yuuto flailed.

"No," Himari reaffirmed strongly.

"But…!" Yuuto protested.

"Yuuto, Kuesu and Himari are agreeing on something, nano," Shizuku said. "You'd better listen, nano."

Yuuto, standing with them in the hallway outside the ladies room after a rather awkward extraction, turned a confused look at the two taller girls in turn. "But why? They seemed like nice people!"

"They're infringing on my exclusive loli rights," Shizuku added. "I want them gone."

Kuesu sighed. "Yuuto-kun, it's sweet that you're always willing to be fooled by any pretty face with a happy story to throw at you– "

"Hey!" Yuuto protested.

"– but they're obviously fishy," Kuesu continued. "What kind of magical organization sends a bunch of children as their representatives?"

"I thought you said two of them were important big-shots?" Yuuto asked, confused.

Kuesu's face didn't change, though the look in her eyes said she was annoyed Yuuto had retained this bit of exposition. "If they're genuine, that's even worse," Kuesu continued. "So many factions, and newly established ones at that, can't lead to anything good."

"Why not?" Yuuto challenged. "There were twelve Demon Slayer clans, and they got along pretty well for a long time."

Kuesu gave him a flat look, the kind she usually only reserved for Himari and Ayakashi she intended to kill… which were pretty much the same thing. "I will assume," she said, slowly and coldly, "that you said that without thinking, if you believe that the treatment the Jinguuji Clan have received from the other clans to be indicative of 'getting along pretty well'. Amakawa-kun, while mass media would have you thinking ancient societies with wildly diverse factions within all plot together with sexy soap opera politics and fast talking is the norm, I assure you the opposite is the truth. Young, multifactional organizations might be full of potential and excitement and ideals and big dreams, but what they are also full of is young hotheads filled with ideals and excitement and potential violence who want to see their agendas through, and damn if it gets in the way of someone else's agenda. In those young organizations, the idealism quickly makes way for pragmatism and medium of exchange quickly becomes threats, violence, blackmail and sex." She paused on the last word, as if thinking of something, but shook her head after a brief glance at Yuuto. "If they're lucky, they'll be able to transition into an organization where genteel blackmail, backstabbing and backroom dealing is the norm, but only if they manage not to self-destruct during the no doubt violent years of young idealism."

Himari nodded. "She's right young master. If we join, then one faction or another will try to take you, either as a bargaining chip, as a symbol of status or simply to increase their own power, literally and figuratively. Just because you haven't been able to work out how to wield the power of the Amakawa doesn't mean they won't be able to. And in such an environment, the risk of you being killed, either as retaliation or simply to prevent you with joining with the other factions, is high. As the last Amakawa, we cannot risk that, at least not until you've fucked me with kittens!"

Yuuto blushed as Shizuku and Kuesu glared at Himari.

"But… they seem friendly enough," Yuuto protested. "And we seem to have similar goals."

Shizuku made a wry smile, reached up to cup one of her breasts, squeezed and fondled it, then mimed smacking someone on the head.

"Those are always accidents!" Yuuto cried.

The glares he received in turn said this wasn't a good response.

"Regardless," Kuesu said coolly, "even if they are aligned with our agenda– " and by her tone that was a mere generalization, since all the girls had their own agenda, as well as Yuuto's own , "– we can't afford to be drawn into their problems. Two of the Demon Slayer clans died out because they go involved in an outside organization and were forced to fight in conflicts they had nothing to do with, and while the Jinguuji Clan have little to fear from being wiped out now, as the last Amakawa you have a responsibility to your ancestors and descendants to continue the family line so you'll have descendants."

"By fucking me full of kittens," Himari added, earning her more glares and another blush.

Kuesu's hand twitched as if she wanted to go for her gun. "As I was saying, it would be too easy for you to get killed if you end up involved in their affairs," Kuesu said. As Yuuto opened his mouth to reply, she added, "And if you die, then your dream of Ayakashi, Demon Slayers and normal people living together in peace as friends die with you."

Yuuto snapped his mouth shut with a click. "But… I thought… you're all getting along so well together!"

"Because of you, nano," Shizuku said. "It's your idea, and we're giving it a try, and so far it's doing okay, but only because of you, nano. Without you, we'd have killed each other months ago, nano. We still might, nano. If you die, there's nothing to hold us together, nano."

"But… your memories together!" Yuuto said.

Shizuku pointed at the taller girls. "Do you think memories will keep them from each others' throats if you die?"

Yuuto stared, the other two not meeting his gaze.

"Excuse me," Tomoyo said pleasantly from behind them, "while I understand you must conspire among yourselves and decide, do you mind if I pass? I need to use the ladies' room."

….

"I'm sorry, but we'll have to decline your invitation," Yuuto said, looking wretched.

"Eh?" Sakura said, surprised. "But I thought we were becoming good friends!"

"Um, well…" Yuuto said, devolving into mumbling and quite conscious of Syaoran's glare on him. He looked sideways, avoiding Sakura's confused gaze.

"It is not that your offer is unattractive," Kuesu said bluntly, "but the situation you describe is not one we wish to be involved in." It was a mere restatement of an argument already given and at the time reasonably assuaged, but now spoken in tones of greater finality. "We are much too busy managing the rogue ayakashi who would otherwise feed on the unsuspecting to deal with the factional politics of such an association."

"Factional politics?" Sakura repeated, her confusion deepening. Tomoyo and Syaoran exchanged looks behind her. They obviously didn't like being seen through. Young organizations thought they were so cool and smooth and smart, but really, most of the time the were pretty hamfisted. It was like doing surgery with mallets.

Somewhere, Vita, of course, sneezed. And if you're interested, she had once used a mallet for surgery. It had, contrary to expectation, not acted as anesthetic, but as a rib spreader. Also against expectation, the patient survived.

"So please, return to your superiors and let them know that we are not interested in their offer," Himari said, smiling a wide, catty smile of smug triumph.

"You… don't want to join then?" Sakura asked hesitantly. "I'm having trouble telling…"

"Yes!" Himari and Kuesu chorused.

Sakura brightened. "Oh, you do want to join?"

Behind her and under her line of sight, her three companions facepalmed.

"No, we don't want to join!" Himari and Kuesu repeated as Yuuto sighed but kept his mouth shut.

"Oh," Sakura said, looking disappointed. "That's too bad. We were planning to have a beach picnic next month while the boys were off on their hiking tour of the Mars."

Yuuto brightened, sitting up straight. Himari and Kuesu gave him piercing looks. Yuuto slumped, dejected.

"Excuse me," Tomoyo said politely, wearing a saintly, mysterious smile ©™, "but I'd just like to clarify. You said you managed rogue Ayakashi? You mean Youkai?"

"No, we mean Ayakashi," Kuesu said.

"Youkai and Ayakashi are completely different things," Himari said, looking insulted. "Don't you know that?"

Three heads shook sideways in the negative. There was a pause as they took a headcount.

"Kero-chan!" Sakura exclaimed. "You knew?"

"Of course," Keroberos, already eyeing the cake display again. "I used to live around here, after all. You find all sorts: Youkai, Makai, Mazoku, Yurei, Ayakashi, Oni, Makamou, Grongi, Aswang, Lawyers…"

"And you never mentioned it?" Syaoran said, sounding annoyed, his frown directed at the little plushy.

"Well, it's not exactly something that pops up in casual conversation!" Kero said. "I mean, I know the secret event you need to unlock to keep Aerith from dying too, but since no one ever asks about it and we've never talked about it, I haven't brought it up!"

"If it helps, I didn't know that either," Yuuto assured them. He frowned. "Wait… you mean to say there are things out there other than Ayakashi? Like what?"

At that moment, the lights flickered as the speakers that usually played light music and every cell phone in the tea shop went nuts, screaming out what sounded like distorted electronic noise, whistles and squeals like the electronic damned. Most people looked around in confusion as Keroberos whipped his head around like a dog catching a scent and Himari rubbed her head, frowning slightly.

"Well, for starters," Syaoran said as he got to his feet, holding a hand to Sakura so she could pull herself out, "that."

….

The sun was setting, staining the world a rather thick orange as they ran through unfamiliar streets that were getting increasingly emptier and shabbier. Syaoran took the lead, the bead of his sword in his hand, ready to change at a moment's notice. Sakura walked behind him, a hand on his back pressing lightly, though the way her palm shook told him it took great effort to keep her from grabbing the back of his shirt and holding it. If she did that, the split second's distraction if her letting go or not letting go would make a dangerous difference. Keroberos flew above her, face serious but somehow not comical, while Tomoyo walked in the rear. She of course held a camera in her hands, but he'd seen her loosening something in her purse when she'd taken it out. Her Lex-Blaster 500, most likely, unless she'd upgraded. Doubtful. She was fond of that gun, something about a one-eyed American who'd taught her to use it. It was just as likely to be her Desert Eagle. Mundane weapons were iffy with the things that went bump in the night. Some were hurt by bullets, some with energy blasts. Some weren't. It made good sense to be able to switch out if it was strong against one or the other.

Not for the first time, Syaoran wondered how many people in the entertainment industries were actually one of those things that go bump in the night in disguise, or at least knew about them, slipping in little hints like these as in-game mechanics and bad exposition. Monsters telling stories about how to kill other monsters was as old as storytelling. Werewolves had taught Stoker. Vampires had produced 'Wendy the Werewolf Stalker'. Possibly someone or other had coached the brothers Grimm. On and on.

Everyone knew Meyer was just nuts though. NO ONE sparkled. And if they did, they weren't vampires.

Eventually, Syaoran said, "Why are you following us?"

Behind them, Himari sniffed, carrying her sheathed sword blatantly as she and those with her trotted after them. "This city is our territory," she said possessively. "We have every right to go anywhere we want. And if you're going to be doing something in our city, we want to know about it."

"You said you weren't interested in getting involved with our activities," Syaoran said.

"That was before it turned out you were going to do something in our city," Kuesu said grimly. "We're here to find out what it is and if we don't like it, stop it."

"I'm just making sure you lolis get out of my turf, nano," Shizuku said.

For some bizarre reason, Syaoran was reminded of Kuro and her bizarre battle cry, "For the Loli!", and stifled a smile.

"What is happening?" Yuuto asked. He was panting a little, but didn't seem to have any trouble keeping up.

"Invaders," Syaoran said.

Yuuto paled. "North Relasia is attacking?"

"No, something else," Syaoran snapped. What was it with people always asking that? It was either them or North Korea. Just once, he'd like people to ask if it were aliens, if only for a change of pace.

Tomoyo, running sideways next to Sakura now and filming her run, to Sakura's embarrassment, slowed and tilted her head. "Do you hear that?" she said and the others stop. "It sounds like…"

"Wait! Wait!"

"…someone calling us to stop," Tomoyo said, behind them, one of the waitresses from the tea shop came running towards them.

"Yuuto-kun!" the blonde girl cried, clearly distressed. "You forgot to pay for your cakes!"

Tomoyo snapped her fingers. "I knew I forgot something!" she said, rapping her head with her knuckles. "Silly me."

Syaoran stared at her and groaned. "The ONE time you forget to be hyper-competent…" he muttered as Tomoyo reached into her purse, pulling out a wad of bills and handing them to the waitress with an apologetic smile.

"I'm so sorry to trouble you like this," Tomoyo said in full-on sweet-girl mode. "And your cakes were so tasty too. Honestly, I feel horrible this happened"

"Ah, it's all right," the girl said, smiling also as she accepted the money. "I'm sure the manager will understand but maybe you'd better come back with me and explain things."

"Oh, we can't," Tomoyo said apologetically. "We're sort of in a hurry. Don't worry, I trust you to take care of things."

In the distance, someone screamed.

Yuuto paled. "Was that Rinko?"

There was another scream this time containing swearing.

"Sounds like Rinko, nano," Shizuku said. "We can wait for a third scream to be sure, nano…"

But Yuuto was already running back the way they'd come.

Himari was after him a moment later, calling for him to slow down and wait. A moment later, Sakura was running after them her face determined. "Come on!" she called over her shoulder. "Someone's in trouble! Come on!"

Kuesu sighed. "Oh, Yuuto-sama…" as she began to run after them.

"So, yours has a hero complex too, huh?" Syaoran said casually as he ran as well, keeping Sakura in his sights.

"All the time," she said without thinking. "It's like he thinks he needs to protect everyone, even though they're stronger, faster and can take more than he can!"

Syaoran nodded. "I know the type. They can be quite a handful."

Kuesu gave him a sideways look. "Indeed," she said noncommittally.

"But we love them anyway," Tomoyo said quietly as she ran behind them, the three of them slowly catching up to the two in the lead. "We love them because of it."

Kuesu blinked and briefly looked over her shoulder to glance at the girl.

Abruptly, Tomoyo let out a cry. "Oh no! I'll never be able to film Sakura-chan properly from this angle!"

Syaoran and Kuesu blinked as they found themselves eating Tomoyo's dust.

After a moment, Syaoran let out a huff, then glances sideways at Kuesu himself. "Don't you just hate it when the demonic existence with the long, dark hair gets to their side before you can and make you look bad?"

Despite herself, Kuesu grinned. "Yeah," she agreed.

The two of them ran faster.

"Wait! Don't leave me here! I'm just a maid waitress!" Lizlet cried, bringing up the rear.

Shuzuku huffed. "So troublesome, nano." And she disappeared in a puddle of water.

….

Amakawa Yuuto thought he'd seen it all. He'd fought Ayakashi, been attacked by Ayakashi, and had watched as Himari had fought Tamamo-no-Mae. When his friends had been in danger, he or someone else, had always been able to save them in time. An unstable leap to catch someone in midair. A convenient sword to block and attack, a spell to blast it away. A wave of water to push their enemies back. A convenient kick or gunshot at just the right moment.

So upon seeing Rinko with dark tentacles shoved into her mouth and down her throat, her eyes rolled back and convulsing, he thought they still had time. Himari would cut the tentacles, Rinko would spit them out and cough and make a catty comment about them taking so long…

Then the dark thing BURST from Rinko's mouth a dark, hunched, humanoid form bigger than Rinko herself, trailing from her open orifice like some bizarre, Lovecraftian genie. Someone was screaming, screaming so loudly, which was really distracting until Yuuto realized it was himself. Himari was screeching out Rinko's name, and Yuuto felt the burning in his nose and eyes. Himari had let herself go, her ears and tail out. The thing pulled its feet out of Rinko's mouth and as it stepped out Rinko's body shuddered and seemed to collapse in on itself, becoming a uniform black as it formed the thing's other foot.

The world seemed to congeal, everything slowing. The hunched, black thing that used to be Rinko, standing beneath the bridge on the artificial riverbank. A plastic bag from a local convenience store on the ground spilling its contents of pudding cups and other snacks. The identical-looking thing that had shoved its tentacles down her throat next to it, with seven more arrayed around them. In the shadows of the beams above, more dark shapes stirred, glowing eyes predatory. Himari was by his side, always by his side, screeching, her blade out.

Join us….

The words were dark, twisted and other-worldly, and it was a horrible, horrible world where Twilight was Great Literature and no good thing could grow, a world that wanted him dead.

Come to our world…

A world that wanted him

There was a rush of air, a crack and a high-pitched whine as a bolt of lightning blew out one of the closest thing's arms, a burst of laser fire blew out the other, and a fireball blew up its head. It dissolved in black dust, a glowing crystal falling to the ground.

The thing that used to be Rinko turned to them, opened its monstrous mouth and screamed. The air literally rippled, waves of kinetic energy launching forward.

"Shield Card!"

A curved, semi-spherical shield sprang into existence in front of Yuuto as the voice behind him called, the ripples slamming into it and seemingly causing the air to shudder. Yuuto's eardrum rang, but he suspected that was a lot better than what would have happened to him otherwise.

Another ball of fire flew at Rinko, barely missing and Yuuto cried out. "Kuesu, be careful! That's Rinko! That's– "

Kuesu cursed as she shifted her next spell, slamming harmlessly to the ground, but lightning cracked again, and Rinko's head exploded.

"RINKO!"

Lee Syaoran darted in, sword of his own in his hand, its blade wider and heavier than Himari's. He cut off one of the creatures arms as he dove with one hand extended, and then he was rolling, spinning and slashing in their midst. A huge, lion-like beast with wings followed after him, roaring and spitting fire. Glowing crystals began to fall as the creatures dissolved into black dust.

Yuuto saw none of this. He could only kneel, staring at the spot where Rinko had been, even as the fighting quickly wrapped up around him.

"Is he all right?" Syaoran asked once he'd finished picking up all the glowing crystals and put them inside the metal canister– really a thermos– he was carrying.

Shizuku, who'd appeared at the tail end of the fight, looked at him critically, then stuck out her tongue. Sakura, Syaoran, Kero and even Tomoyo were unable to suppress a shudder as it grew long enough for her to tickle the back of his ear. Yuuto twitched involuntarily, but otherwise didn't respond, staring. "Strange, nano," she said. "He hasn't reacted like this in a long time, nano."

"It was Rinko," Himari said as Syaoran reached into his pocket, pulling out the stone he'd grabbed and walking towards Sakura. "She was… she was…"

"Those things… they turned her," Kuesu said, frowning at the disappearing black dust as Sakura took the stone in her hands in the background. "Are these what they call Dead Apostles? I wasn't really listening when they talked about it at the Clocktower."

Shizuku became very blank-faced. Even blanker than usual. Both girl knew the older Ayakashi well enough to know this meant the news had affected her profoundly. Slowly, the little loli knelt down and, without any of her usual eroticism, wrapped both arms around Yuuto, ignoring the mild blue glow off to one side. Yuuto's head bowed, resting on her shoulders as his shaking arms wrapped her, tears streaming down his face. Himari looked mildly indignant and opened her mouth, but Kuesu touched her arm and sternly shook her head, recognizing the favor being paid back.

"Rinko…" Yuuto sobbed. "Rinko… "

"What about me?"

Yuuto's head jerked up along with everyone else. Behind them, Tomoyo was carefully securing the metal canister as Sakura tucked the glowing blue stone around her neck and Syaoran helped a girl with a confused expression on her face to her feet. They stared.

"R-Rinko?" Yuuto said, pulling away from Shizuku's hug.

"You keep saying that. You're going to rub all the specialness off it," Rinko said.

"Rinko!" Yuuto cried as he rushed forward and engulfed her in a hug.

Shizuku huffed, miffed at having wasted a perfectly good hug. "First the witch, now you. Don't you people die when you're killed anymore?"

Somewhere, Shiro sneezed.

"Y-Yuuto-kun!" Rinko blanched, surprised at the sudden affection. "What's gotten into you?"

"W-we thought you had died," Himari said, still stunned.

Rinko blinked. "Eh?"

Kuesu, determining their necessary priorities, rounded upon the three children. "What," she demanded, "just happened?"

The three and Keroberos exchanged glances. "They're called Invaders…" Syaoran began, then fell silent, tense.

Around them, whispering rose and the dark places wavered. Come to our world…

Everyone arrayed themselves in a circle defensively as more Invaders appeared, seeming to slink out of the shadows.

Then world went mad.

….

Taken objectively, Tomoyo thought it looked like a bad British cartoon. It certainly reminded her of the animated segments of that old comedy show Negi and Kuro liked to watched, the one with the comedy troupe that made a movie about Saber's life she considered "Accurate except for those police officers at the end". Colors had a doubtful consistency, with most things looking like sloppy pencil drawings. The ground at her feet looked like it had been clipped from a gigantic newspaper, perfectly flat and level and hard and with lines of what looked like strange runic scrip running in neat lines, with recognizable punctuation marks and formatting and bylines. There were even patches of black and white pictures, rendered almost into indistinct networks of dots due to their size. Pseudo-buildings grew around them, their perspective warped and mad, so one couldn't tell if they were big and several feet away or small and right in front of your face, looking like clumsy papier-mâché made by enthusiastic but not very skilled children for their school play, their surfaces covered by what seemed magazine clippings. Above them, a huge dome– or was it the sky?– seemingly pieced together from clippings of the interesting parts of pornographic publications arched, with some random clouds apparently cut from the pages of equally lewd manga. Tomoyo was mildly indignant to recognize on one of those clouds one she herself had made about Sakura-chan. An odd chomping noise filled the air ominously.

"Don't look up," she warned everyone.

Predictably, everyone but Sakura looked up.

"Yuuto, you pervert!" Rinko exploded, pouncing on him to cover his eyes.

Thankfully, they were attacked soon afterward and the boys had something else to worry about besides misplaced womanly wrath.

The Invaders hadn't seemed at all perturbed at the sudden shift in scenery. It wasn't that they couldn't be surprised. Indeed, surprise was one of the weapons most commonly used on them. It was more like they hadn't considered the sudden change all that shocking. They appeared from behind the flimsy-looking buildings, further confusing Tomoyo's sense of perspective, seeming to blend into the dark corners Tomoyo was only now noticing.

They were a mix, of the sleeker, old kind of Invaders that were more human-like but weren't, that passed through human society under false names and false memories, and the newer, rougher kind that used to be human, and which the girl they'd rescued had so briefly been. They had the other crystals stowed away for recovery, but unless they managed to get out there would be much opportunity to do that.

She wasn't worried. She knew Sakura would get out of this, if Tomoyo had to bleed everyone around her dry.

They came with claw and tentacle and deadly kinetic blasts, which Tomoyo skillfully avoided, if not with as much speed as she would have liked yet. The blonde girl who had so determinedly brought the bill was crying out and crouching, Yuuto doing his best to protect her and Rinko as the others fought. Sakura wielded her wand in one hand and her stone in the other, directing the Shield Card and its light to protect those who couldn't dodge and OH she looked so beautiful, so determined. A camera, a film crew, her inheritance for glorious footage of this!

Himari and Syaoran had thrown themselves at the forefront, identifying the ones who shot kinetic blasts as the most immediate threats. Kuesu was using her magic to keep the feral ones off their backs as the two swordusers tried to dispatch their targets as quickly as possible. The Invaders were, as such things could be generalized, weak up close, if you discounted it took a full clip of an assault rifle to take one down properly. Swords however, especially swords held by those with skill and power, were more than up to the task.

The air suddenly grew dry as water congealed out of nowhere, crashing as a small wave to wash a group of Invaders that had appeared at their flanks. The girl Shizuku, who apparently hadn't been sanguine with 'other lolis' making themselves known, gave a small, self-satisfied smile, her clothes absolutely drenched and looking like a drowned corpse. She seemed strangely reluctant. "What are these things, nano?"

"Invaders," Tomoyo answered evenly, shooting as best as she could to distract the Invaders so the two front-liners could take them down and womanfully not giving in to the temptation to aim at Syaoran's back. Sakura would cry, after all. "We were going to provide the exposition about them, but were rudely interrupted."

"How do we kill them?" Kuesu asked bluntly.

"The usual ways," Tomyo said cheerfully.

"Good to know, nano," Shizuku said. "I still don't like having you two around, nano. You're horning in on my loli-appeal, nano."

"My apologies," Tomoyo said airily with a saintly, mysterious smile©™. "We'll try to grow up quickly."

"You do that, nano."

"Is it just me?" Rinko said from under Yuuto's impromptu human shield, "or is that creepy noise getting louder?"

An area Tomoyo had thought was either solid wall or distant horizon suddenly burst apart with a sound not unlike tearing paper, only oddly distended and bass, and group of figures suddenly stumbled through as the chomping noises suddenly increased dramatically. One of them was glowing brilliant green and all five were running like hell. The reason why soon became obvious as a huge black sphere twenty feet across crashed through the opening after them, tearing it open further, and after it came… things.

Tomoyo had never seen anything like them before, not even heard descriptions. They looked like little pińata chibi nuns held together with safety pins, with no eyes and a slit mouth in the front of their 'face' that opened to reveal more teeth than a shark's. Though they had the same art project reject look as the scenery, Tomoyo had a horrible feeling those teeth were very real. They were chomping incessantly, their gnashing jaws making the horrible sound that echoed through the room.

"Yuuno!" Syaoran called, and barely dodged the Invader that had decided to take advantage of his distraction. Himari's sword flashed past him, focused and deadly, cleaving off the Invader's arm. Syaoran managed to slap a jufu on his blade, wind bursting around him with a cry of "Fukka Shourai!". Wind blasted outward from him, hurling nearby invaders away and causing others to fall over.

"Gate, Open!"

Small, red knives with curving edges and designs flew, taking several Invaders in the head as narrow black razors tore through others like shot and beams of green light cut through still more.

Yuuno grabbed two of the figures and flew towards them, his passengers throwing out red blades and black razors. Another one grabbed the last girl and leapt, the arch of her jump impossibly long and smooth. Manazuru Miu landed amongst them almost apologetically, and let her passenger down. "Excuse me," she said as she narrowly skirted stepping on Lizlet's hand. Yuuno landed more smoothly, quickly raising two shields of his own to help Sakura cover them.

"Hey," Yuuno said casually as Syaoran and Himari fell back, regrouping and watching the black sphere warily.

"'Sup," Syaoran greeted back. "Yuuto-san, this is Green Lantern-kun. He's like you."

Yuuto's head snapped up at that, blinking at the boy in glowing green. "I thought Green Lantern-chan was a girl?"

"She's my partner," Yuuno said. "I'm the other one who does as much work but doesn't show up in the pictures as much. What can I say, the media are obsessed with pretty girls."

The Invaders had stilled, their outlines one and all fuzzing, before they seemed to leap, joining with the black sphere, which grew noticeably. It turned to regard them, its blank face somehow conveying malevolence and odium. Around it, the little paper creatures swarmed.

Sakura and Yuuno moved their shields between it and them, wary. "What are those things?" Syaoran asked. "Some new kind of Invader?"

"Hell if I know," Satoka said, a red blade in each hand. "Never seen anything like them before. Maybe they're the evil Paper Nuns from the Dark Paper Kingdom here to steal Paper Hearts?"

Sakura, Tomoyo, Syaoran and Yuuno all gave her a look, though in Sakura's case it was more a look of confusion

"What?" she asked unrepentantly. "That's the sort of thing that happens with Magical Girls, right? You pick a theme and you stick to it like glue. Can't be any worse than that evil circus Sailor Venus was yammering on about. That was a great party by the way."

"You're met Sailor Venus?" Rinko and Yuuto exclaimed.

"Rinko, young master, focus please?" Himari growled, her cat ears twitching.

"We have no cell phone reception here," Ayane reported flatly, tucking away one of her hundreds of cheap, disposable cell phones. "I can't connect to the Central Gate Engine."

"Aw, poor you needing to use your own Gate powers, just like the rest of us mere mortals," Satoka said sarcastically.

"I'm pretty sure none of us count as 'mere'," Tomoyo said pleasantly.

Rinko raised a hand. "I'm 'mere'."

"Exception noted," Ayane said.

A spot on the black sphere dimpled, making it look like an eye, and seemed to look at them.

"That's obviously a bad thing," Rinko said flatly, and everyone nodded.

Sakura and Yuuno exchanged glances and then turned to try and layer their shields together.

The paper nun-things attacked in a cloud, teeth chomping ferociously and catching the two by surprise. Kuesu and Syaoran sent fire at them, and they caught fire cheerfully enough, but they didn't seem to feel it, and if they did it didn't slow them down. Tomoyo's blaster was managing to damage them, but it took four or five shots to bring one down, and they moved too quickly and randomly to make that reliable. Kageyama's aim was nevertheless flawless, each of his black razor-like blasts bringing them down, but there seemed to be no end to them. Yuuno tried to keep his shield up even as he created a couple of giant fans to try and blow them away.

Tomoyo saw Sakura hurriedly wrapping the stone's chain around her wrist and using her now-free hand to draw out a Card. "Sword Card!" she called, her wand transforming into a narrow, elegant blade without dropping the shield before her. Sakura slashed at the things with sudden skill, each pass cutting them in half as the stone glowed from its chain, charging Yuuno's ring even as Sakura called more shields of blue light into being. The Card Mistress's face was contorted in strain and concentration, but she didn't flag, looking only determined.

From its position, the Invader shot out a concentrated beam of kinetic energy, slamming hard into Yuuno's shield, weakened from his needing to split his concentration. Sakura's also broke and she let out a sudden pained cry that made Tomoyo's blood boil even as she tried to rush to Sakura's side. Sakura's other shield seemed to waver, shaking as the paper nuns bit at them and bodily threw themselves against the barriers. The beam kept going, slamming into the last layer of the Shield Card… and stopped cold.

The Shield Card had no face Tomoyo had ever seen, and was one of those Cards, like its sibling the Sword Card, that seemed more concept than entity, but Tomoyo couldn't help but think the wing-like emblem at its front, with the large, cabochon feature that now suddenly looked like an eye, seemed rather smug. She gave it an acknowledging nod even as she caught Sakura mid-stumble, putting one hand on her shoulder to steady her while shooting with the other.

The Invader apparently couldn't hold its assault for long, but it didn't need to. Even as it's beam died, the paper nuns were rushing forward, trying to take advantage of the weakened protection the loss of Yuuno and Sakura's shield offered. Kuesu summoned fire and Syaoran wind, trying to clear them, to push them away, but while several caught fire, the sheer weight of numbers kept them pushing forward.

"Gate, Open."

The words were soft, almost reluctant, but they came with a sudden howl of fury as a wind– no, a gale– no, a storm suddenly burst to life in the midst of them, causing some to nearly stumble as a wave of air struck them from behind like a wall of cotton. Stumble as they would though, it was nothing to the tempestuous aerial maelstrom above them, which seemed to grab the murderous nuns bodily and threw them about as easily as any random paper in a hurricane. Isuzu Ayane stood among them, eyes seemingly wider than usual behind her round glasses and glowing with slowly spinning, concentric rings. Similar concentric rings turned above her outstretched hands, raised high to either side of her as they screamed from the storm each produced. The paper nuns began to swirl above them as Ayane, with what seemed like delicacy, angled the discs of light to make the air spin turn-wise around the enormous domed chamber. Some of the building-like features tore, or rather ripped from the ground, caught in the gale above them.

"Sakura, watch out for the Invader! Everyone else, follow my lead, concentrate fire at one spot and think of retro video games!" Yuuno cried as green anti-aircraft gun turrets appeared around him. "FIRE!"

Yuuno sent a barrage of green bullets at the leading edge of the cloud of paper nuns. Kuesu and Syaoran followed through with fire and lightning as Kageyama summoned an enormous gate, black razors flying while Tomoyo contributed what little help her gun could do. The paper nuns all flew through the kill zone, and were devastated, torn apart in huge numbers. The stream flew past the kill zone, but Ayane swung both hands, slamming the winds straight at them and gathering them in. They let out another barrage, blasting through the creatures.

The Invader's kinetic beam slammed around them without warning, forgoing trying to force its way past Sakura's shield and instead trying to blow up the ground around them. Kageyama kept his footing somehow, but everyone else was thrown off balance, their spells faltering, the gale dying. Yuuno managed to catch himself in midair. The paper nuns swarmed while he was distracted, the score or so left of them diving at them as the Invader began to roll towards them. Tomoyo, next to Sakura, hesitated… then grabbed the Sword Card in her hands. Sakura let it go hesitantly but willing, and it found slipped into Tomoyo's hand easily.

She had seen what the Sword Card could do. At the very least, it had turned one of their most normal classmates in a high jumping, high-flipping, sword-swinging machine that had been a match for Syaoran at the time. She had some small idea what to expect.

Knowledge suddenly flooded her mind. It wasn't abstract knowledge, like knowing how to swing a sword. It was muscle memory and instinct and reaction time and balance and how to stand and how to breathe and so many other things people didn't realize you had to learn. There was nothing fancy there, like manipulating chi or anything. It was all physical skill and ability and maybe an little enhancement, a little firming up. It all slid into Tomoyo's mind, finding the places that already had such knowledge and making itself comfortable.

Her eyes snapped open– when had she closed them?– and she dropped her gun as she leapt, holding the Sword Card as Tsukuyomi-han had taught, even as the blade curved slightly, the tip losing its diamond-like head and smoothing out. Tomoyo leapt up at the cloud of paper nuns, one eye gold on black as she swung. They flew at her, their huge mouths big enough to fit her head in and open wide, eager to rend flesh. One managed to sink its teeth into her arm. It felt like wet paper but bit into her flesh anyway, drawing blood even as she stabbed it through the head. She ignored it, letting instincts, her own and the Card's, guide her through the cloud. Her feet found purchase on them, the force of her footsteps sending them slamming into the ground even as she gained height. They tore at her skirts and tangled at her hair, but she didn't stop, rising above them with one last leap.

She flipped over even as they followed her up, a mindless cloud of death.

Green blasts, black razors, crimson knives, lightning, missiles of explosive compressed air, fire and blasts from her gun took the now-clustered paper nuns from behind, tearing them apart in a final wave. Those left she descended upon, the Sword Card spinning with beautiful delicacy in her hands before she landed lightly amidst a flutter of dissolving confetti. Instinct cried at her, and she dodged to the side as a kinetic beam struck where she'd been standing.

"Green Lantern-kun, I believe mass destruction is your area of expertise?" she called out.

"Um, actually, that's more her thing…"

Tomoyo gave him a look.

Yuuno sighed. "I guess we should finish that thing."

"Indeed," Kuesu agreed. "Then perhaps someone could explain what that thing is… and who you people are… and where are we?"

Everyone looked at the suddenly lonely-looking Invader.

"Core is in the exact center," Kageyama said, looking through a white gate spinning in front of his left hand, a black gate in his right.

They all charged.

The battle was as to be expected.

….

It was afterward, when Yuuno had managed to pick up the crystals the destroyed Invader had dropped, Tomoyo had sweetly given Sakura back her Sword Card and Kuesu had returned Tomoyo's blaster.

"Do we finally get an explanation now?" Himari asked testily, her cat-ears flicking.

"Of course," Tomoyo said guilelessly, opening her arms wide with a smile as Sakura fussed with her, healing her wounds with her stone. The bloodstains lent a creepy air to her pose. "What would you like to know?"

"What were those things?" Rinko demanded, waving in the general direction of where the last of the paper nuns had been.

"Who are these people, nano?" Shizuku said, giving Yuuno a hard stare until she was sure he was not another loli.

"Where are we?" Himari demanded.

"And what the hell is an Invader?" Kuesu added.

"I need to get back to the tea shop!" Lizlet cried, wringing her hands.

Tomoyo smiled, nodding acknowledgment at each question, then turned to Yuuno. Syaoran rolled his eyes. "Yuuno-kun, I believe introductions are in order?"

"Ah, hi there," Yuuno said, waving lamely. "I'm Green Lantern-kun, not to be confused with Green Lantern-chan."

"Really?" Syaoran said. "You're going with that?"

"Better than the other one," Yuuno said.

Tomoyo clapped her hands. "Don't worry Yuuno-kun, you'll always be Ferret Lantern to us!" Off to the side, Satoka snickered.

"As to who we are…" Yuuno paused a moment. "Um, well, I'm a superhero. Technically I'm space police, but that seems to be generally regarded as a form of superhero, so it's okay. I'm trying to get the term Mahou Shounen to stick, but you'd be surprised at how hard that is. Nazo-san and the girls are from a Mysterious Secret Organization who operate around the country and have branches around the world. They're allies of ours."

Kuesu gave them a suspicious look. "Are they also members of this United Magic Girls Association?"

"United Magical Girl Association," Miu corrected mildly, then blushed as Ayane and Satoka gave her looks. "Ah, well, it's rude to get it wrong…"

"You joined, didn't you?" Satoka said. "You joined at that last party!"

"Ah, well, they all seemed like such nice people, and Black Archer-chan was such a very good listener…" Miu said.

"You know a Black Archer is a pervert and was probably trying to get into your panties, right?" Satoka said blandly.

Miu blinked. "Eh? She didn't look like a pervert…"

"Perverts wouldn't be very successful if they looked like perverts, now would they?" Satoka said with a knowing air.

"Spoken like a true virgin," Ayane said quietly. Kageyama coughed mildly and turned his face away.

"What was that, you weirdo meganekko!-?" Satoka demanded.

"So… they're a boke and tsukkomi comedy troupe?" Lizlet said.

Kageyama coughed again, politely keeping his face averted.

"As to what those things were," Yuuno said, powering on through from long experience of topic derailments during even life-and-death briefings. The image of a paper nun appeared in the air, rendered in shades of green. "I have no idea. I've never encountered one before. For all I know they could be evil Paper Nuns from the Dark Paper Kingdom here to steal Paper Hearts after all."

"Not it!" Satoka and Syaoran cried.

"Dark Kingdoms are the Senshi's thing," Keroberos said, nodding.

The rendered image switched to the big ball and the Invaders. "The Invaders, however, we have more experience with. Basically, they are…"

Syaoran sort of tuned out the explanation. He wondered if maybe he should check on the idea Chisame had suggested about putting all this in a book or even just a pamphlet so they wouldn't get bogged down in exposition. Organizations handed them out to newbies, right? But no, no one bothered reading those the anyway, not even him. It took a special kind of person to read things like those and bother to remember them.

He eyed Tomoyo as they got to the first random tangent of the exposition— something about if they were a kind of Ayakashi, which somehow led to a tangent on sentient tea cups— watching as Sakura finished fussing over her and she began cleaning the blood on her arms with moist towelettes. She didn't seem unsteady on her feet, so with luck there hadn't been poison. Unless Sakura had neutralized that without knowing it. They hadn't tested in again poison, after all. He was actually surprised she hadn't worn some kind of bizarre, handmade bulletproof ensemble. She'd made Rin a bullet-proof, armored red sweater, after all.

They seemed to be getting through the Invader exposition and were going through the Q&A about the UMG(aB)A. He heard the shock as Yuuto was told about all the things that went bump in the night. Or in this case, all the other things that went bump in the night.

"Wait, you knew about this, Kuesu, Himari?" Yuuto exclaimed.

Himari shrugged. "It didn't seem relevant."

"Well, it wasn't about Ayakashi, so it's not any of my business," Kuesu said. "There are other people to deal with that, like the police, or the Shinmeiryuu, or those Go-Buster people who're on TV all the time."

"Kuesu, Go-Busters is a TV show," Rinko said flatly.

"Well, I'm too busy to be expected to know that!" Kuesu retorted. "That Gavan person can take care of it!"

"That was a movie. And also a TV show, if you want to get technical," Yuuno said.

"Oh. Well, what about that guy with the train who had Ayakashi possessing his body?"

"Also a TV show," Shizuku said. "And they're called Imagin." At their looks, she shrugged. "I like it, so sue me. I'm waiting for the next movie."

"But that's terrible!" Yuuto cried. "I mean, what's the point of making peace between humans and Ayakashi if there are all these other beings we keep fighting with!"

"Well, it'll still be a big help either way," Yuuno said. "The government is always open to not having to declare genocide on any of its citizens. They're technically Japanese-born citizens, after all."

"But who's working on peace with vampires and… and werewolves and Youki and space aliens?" Yuuto said. "And I cannot believe I just said that. Who's protecting them from Invaders?"

"Well, the vampire thing's not so simple because of the blood thing, and it doesn't help all those trashy novels keep having people the wrong idea…" Syaoran said.

"And I'm always on the lookout for prospective Invader Hunters," Kageyama said, handing him a business card. "The pay is good, provided you don't die. I pay by the kill. Please don't damage the crystals, we need those to change turned people back to normal…"

Yuuto numbly took the card, automatically glancing at it and putting it in his pocket.

"Well, that seems to answer everything!" Kuesu said brightly. "Well, except one last thing: where the hell are we? Is this that Makuu Space I've heard about?"

"Still a TV show, Kuesu!" Rinko said, exasperated. "Seriously, that's a retro show! Who the heck do you think it's real?"

"Well, there were these space pirates…"

"Still a movie!"

To Syaoran's sinking feeling, everyone else just sort of looked at each other and shrugged. "I have no clue," Yuuno said. "I was helping them on an Invader hunt, we were in the middle of a fight, then the next thing I know we're in Monty Python animation." He raised his ring. "I keep getting error messages, but they're the kind you always get when you're dealing with some kind of magic, and for the rest it's telling me we're in a warped space inside a sphere a kilometer wide. The edges read as attenuated, so we can probably get out by walking that way and going beyond the limits of the sphere, but…"

"But…?" Himari prompted warily.

"Spaces like this seldom occur naturally," Yuuno said. "And every war story, every scrap I've learned about Earth's magic, gut instinct, manga and TV show I've seen tells me there's something in the center of this maintaining it."

"That sounds like a vote to turn around and keep walking towards the edge and the way out," Rinko said. "Who's with me on this, raise your hand!"

Himari, Kuesu, Lizlet and Shizuku did so.

"Young master, why aren't you raising your hand?" Himari asked dangerously.

Yuuto was looking thoughtful. "If I remember from the news right, things like this aren't exactly safe, are they?" he said. "I mean, there were those paper things, and then the thing Green Lantern-kun thinks is in the center of this… this dungeon, the… the dungeon boss, as it were…" Yuuto paused. "We fell in here without doing anything. What if other people do too?"

Yuuno looked aside nervously. "My ring found a hospital gown and traces of blood and… bones. With toothmarks."

Tomoyo shuddered, her fingers tracing where the toothmarks on her arms had been, and Syaoran wondered how much of that was real and how much affected.

There was silence.

"So which way to the edge?" Rinko asked brightly.

"Which way to the center?" Yuuto asked quietly. "That's where dungeon bosses tend to be, isn't it?"

"Yuuto/Young Master!" the girls all chorused.

Yuuno gave him a look. "You sure about this?" he asked. "You're a civilian. You don't need to go."

"I'm the last member of the Amakawa Demon Slayer clan," Yuuto said with simple determination, and the Syaoran could see the girls hearts sinking. They recognized the tone. For that matter, he recognized the tone. Despite being on the other side of puberty, it bore a strong resemblance to Negi's 'walking into hell' voice. "I'm not going to let the people of this city get hurt. Not if I can do anything about it."

Behind him, the girls all sighed quietly.

"And," Yuuto said, sounding determined. "I… I want to join. I'm not a magical girl, but I want to join your association." Behind him, Kuesu facepalmed.

Yuuno smiled. "Welcome aboard," he said, holding out his hand.

Yuuto shook it.

….

In the end, it had been up to Syaoran, Keroberos and Sakura to guide them towards the center by the simple expedient of facing where they felt the biggest source of magical power that gave them the creeps was and moving forward, despite all the protests the girls with Yuuto made to the contrary.

"You don't have to go with me," he said. "It's all right if you want to walk towards the edge."

Himari had looked insulted. "I am your sword, young master," she said, drawing herself up to her full height, her tail lashing. "Where you go, I go! I just wish you didn't intend to go there. Still, if you insist on going to stupid and dangerous places, I'll go with you."

"Thank you, Himari-chan," Yuuto said through teary eyes, then sneezed. "Can you tuck away your tail and ears now?"

"No. It's your punishment for deciding to go to stupid and dangerous places." Himari said flatly.

They would have gone on walking in a huddled mess if Yuuno hadn't made the tank for them to ride about in. Lizlet and Rinko had leapt into the open hatch immediately, and if the others were a bit hurried themselves, well… it was a tank! Who wouldn't want to ride in a tank?

"You just dreamed this up, didn't you?" Tomoyo said critically. "This isn't based on a real tank. Is it?"

"Daidouji, it's a stretch tank," Syaoran said. "Much like the stretch Humvee and the stretch ominous black government van, I doubt it's a mass production model. It has cup holders and comfortable seats, for crying out loud."

"Yes, yes, but it's not based on a real model tank is it?" Tomoyo said.

"I think I saw it in a video game," Yuuno said, sitting in the driver's seat and proving it wasn't a real tank when the little joystick next to him turned out to control the turret, which had three barrels and a pair of satellite turrets to either side with their own barrels.

They managed to power on through, the anti-aircraft turrets on top that looked more suited towards point-defense of a battleship instead of a tank allowing them to shoot down the wandering paper nuns left behind. Kuesu had trapped Yuuto at an isolated corner and from the intense expressions both of them wore and their frantic whispering, they were either having an argument of the morality and necessity of this course of action or they were deciding whose turn it was to cook. Reasonable money put it just barely on the former. Kuesu finally ended the discussion by sighing and saying something whose very body language reeked of such tsundere one could imagine her wearing a red sweater. Going by Yuuto's relieved smile, it had likely ended in his favor and without the permanent or even temporary loss of a friend.

There had been some debate on whether they needed windows. On the one hand, the landscape outside was the sort of thing that Mr. Lovecraft was talking out of his ass about, the sort of wyrdness (worse than just normal 'weird') that made you nuts because you had to deal with the steady migraine of looking at it. On the other hand, even with the ring it was damned hard to drive around on just instruments and anyway, after the third time they nearly missed the rope bridge and fell off a cliff, Yuuno ordered everyone to start pulling their weight while he drove and keep watch.

All in all, Syaoran had been on worst road trips. That time he'd had to chaperone his sisters to Disneyland without his mother, to start with. At least this time he was allowed to us magic.

"I think we're getting closer," Keroberos said as Yuuno finished blasting apart a paper wall with a large paper door on it and began rolling through. They could have sent someone to open it, probably– the door had been slightly ajar– but no had been suicidal enough to volunteer and step out of the tank. That kind of went against the principle of riding a tank in the first place. "Whatever it is, I feels really, really close now. We're practically on top of it."

Yuuno frowned. "Say again?"

"It's nearby, really close," Keroberos said. "We should practically see it."

Yuuno's mouth screamed out the next words without recourse to his conscious mind. "ALL SHIELDS, POINT STRAIGHT UP!"

A magic circle was already above and below them when the giant fist slammed into the roof of the tank and shattered the turret and armor both. Fortunately, Yuuno had already stopped concentrating on the tank and even though it broke like green sugar glass, there was barely any feedback, letting him maintain his shield. Sakura's own blue shield followed a moment later, and then the Shield Card a moment after that as everyone else rolled away in all directions now that there weren't any more walls around them. Tomoyo grabbed Keroberos and threw him bodily to the side and away before Syaoran and she both tackled Sakura out of her seat and got the hell away from there carrying her between them.

Yuuno, finding himself alone, threw himself away at an appreciable fraction of the speed of sound just before the giant fist slammed into where he'd been sitting.

"Really should have seen that coming…" Keroberos said woozily as he pushed himself upright.

Above them, the thing didn't roar. That was probably some sort of breach of acceptable practices. Instead, there was a great, basso exhalation of air, like something had sighed with lungs the size of a warehouse, and a chittering sound.

There was this much to say for the thing; it fit right in with the décor. If the world around them were made of scrap paper, then the thing looked like some monstrous chalk drawing peeled up from some abandoned sidewalk and horrendously brought to life with either lackluster or deliberately artistic stop-motion animation, 'artistic' in this instance meaning the kind of art where someone pukes on a canvas with specially made food coloring and possibly a bad chest cold. Its shape and texture altered with every blink as if it was being badly drawn and crudely shaded moment by moment. For a moment, Syaoran thought it was some kind of elephant, but then it raised the fist it had used to crush their tank, and it was, in fact, a fist and not just a trunk with a hand on the end. It had three tripod-like legs from which rose an almost comically spindly waist, topped by a vaguely triangular torso. Where the head would have been was something that looked like the radiation-sick lovechild of a porcupine, a pineapple and a sea urchin. The chalk-rendered face can caricature tears painted on it, seeming to go up and down as if dripping. Something like a huge worm grew from one shoulder, and the enormous fist hung from the other, log enough to drag across the ground.

Syaoran couldn't keep a shudder from climbing up his back as screams suddenly seemed to erupt around them as the chamber found themselves in suddenly seemed to catch with paper flames.

They stood in a chamber big enough to fit two city blocks, with the ceiling far, far above. It was decorated in a parody of a typical home. Behind the giant, titanic stairs rose to some second floor, while to their right were giant shoes in two and threes. Syaoran made out a hallway next to the stairs, while to either side where doors sized to the thing that, if he had to guess, probably lead to the dining room and living room. They were even standing on a huge papery welcome mat. Paper flames danced everywhere, and the ceiling beams a long way up seemed to rain paper ash like dandruff.

Syaoran had seen a lot of weird things when he'd been trying to gain the Clow Cards. They'd been nothing like this. It was all so disturbing, a mockery of domesticity. He felt his spine trying to crawl out of his back again.

Yuuno erupted into the air in a blaze of emerald light, shining like a guiding star in that terrible place and washing out the strangeness of it with hard, cold, green light. Syaoran shook himself as a gigantic shark, with teeth made of chainsaws and frickin' laser beams shooting from its head, coalesced out of the air and attacked the tripod giant, which raised its huge hand protectively. He looked around, trusting Tomoyo to keep an eye on Sakura while he found the rest of their party. Satoka was already charging in, a red sword already in her hands, shaped not-unlike a surfboard and at least fifty feet long, slashing at one of the tripod legs. Kuesu was cursing and sending offensive spells at it as she backed away, but they didn't seem to be doing much good. Yuuto and Lizlet were helping up a downed Rinko, carrying her on their shoulders, with Himari covering their retreat. Miu had jumped off with Kageyama and Ayane in her arms ahead of them to put some distance between themselves and the thing.

Syaoran realized they should probably be doing the same, at least get some range so they could attack safely. "Sakura, Daidouji, we need to get mov– " His words died as he turned around. Tomoyo was kneeling on the ground both arms wrapped around a confused Sakura's waist, her head pressed against the Card Mistress' stomach. Her limbs were shaking as she kept muttering something over and over again.

"T-Tomoyo-chan!" Sakura said, alarmed and trying to shake Tomoyo's shoulder as if this would wake her up. "What's wrong? Please, we need to go." She tried to stand, but Tomoyo let out a cry and tried to pull her down, frantically babbling about not leaving her alone. Sakura looked pleadingly up at Syaoran. "What's wrong with her?"

The way Tomoyo's legs were curling up to her chest made Syaoran suspect she was going for the fetal position. He kneeled next to her. gritting his teeth and darting a look over his shoulder at the giant. It was a little on the small side but big enough to be called a kaijuu, a part of his mind decided before turning back to Tomoyo. Her eyes had a hollow, far-off look, and there was a black, tattoo-like mark shaped like a hand on her neck that hadn't been there before, growing steadily darker. He touched it gingerly, and recoiled, resisting the urge to hiss. There was darkness there, darkness and despair.

"Don't leave me," Tomoyo muttered, clutching Sakura tighter and Sakura winced. Apparently Tomoyo wasn't reining back her strength. "Please don't leave me… I don't want to be alone… don't leave me, don't let him take you away from me…!"

"Tomoyo-chan, I'm not going to leave you alone, only please let go, we have to run…" Sakura, panting a little as Tomoyo squeezed.

Syaoran knelt down and whispered in Tomoyo's ear. "Let go. You're hurting Sakura."

Tomoyo blinked, and suddenly her eyes didn't seem so blank and empty anymore. She shook her head, her grip loosening and Sakura let out a sigh of relief followed by a deep breath of fresh air. Tomoyo still seemed daze, and she didn't even protest much as Syaoran, with quick if slightly rough gestures, grabbed her and threw her over his shoulder, before turning around to run towards the others. Sakura followed at his heels. Keroberos was soon flying by them, as the worm-like appendage tore at Yuuno's shark and slamming it against the ground. Yuuno had managed to surround it with dozens of anti-aircraft guns but it looked to be shrugging off the fire, just like most every other kaijuu Syaoran had heard of. At least, there didn't seem to be much reaction. Its skin was exploding in chalky bursts, but it wasn't slowing down.

They hadn't even run far enough to delude themselves that they were a safe distance away when paper nuns stared popping into the chamber from a parody air-vent set high near the ceiling, from a vent along the ground and from out of the umbrella stand a a giant vase of paper flowers, their teeth gnashing. They came in threes and fours, not so numerous as before but still considerable crowd, and more than enough to swarm them. A group of seven honed in on the four of them, swooping down with mouths wide. Before Syaoran could try and slow down, Keroberos darted ahead of them, small mouth open wide to spew fire . The paper nuns burned away, others darting away from the heat as the ground shook from Yuuno fighting the giant.

They managed to rejoin the others, who were doing their own best to keep the paper nuns back. Ayana seemed reluctant to bring her wind to bear again, possibly because the shape of the room would make herding them as she had done before impossible. Himari was in the lead, glowing slightly, her sword flashing. Yuuto also seemed to be glowing, one hand on Shizuku's shoulder as the little loli drew water out of the very air and lashed at the creatures. Skidding a bit on the papery ground as he came near them, Syaoran shouted to get Miu's attention, then unceremoniously pushed Tomoyo into her arms before he turned around, his sword coming into being. He leapt forward to join Himari in keeping the paper nuns back.

They didn't have to fight for long. Tomoyo had become unresponsive again, her lips moving as she muttered to herself, eyes unfocused. Sakura had checked to see how she was doing before calling n the Shield Card again, putting them all in protective dome. The paper nuns bounced off harmless on the sudden shield, keeping them all safe for now. Yuuto instantly ran towards Himari, whose shoulders were heaving as she panted, while Syaoran got his own breath back and tried to take stock.

They were basically under glass to keep from being swarmed by a bunch of flying teeth. Okay so far, nothing they couldn't really handle, they just needed a moment to plan or for someone to get a bright idea.

Their most powerful member was fighting a kaijuu. Admittedly, it was on the relatively small side, but it was a kaijuu. Again, also nothing they couldn't deal with. Sure, it would be nice to have other big bang people with them, but it was doable. All Yuuno needed to do was make a big enough BANG.

They were with a group they've only recently met who they didn't really know except socially. Yuuno might have worked with the Gatekeepers before, but Syaoran hadn't. They also had one civilian and a group of people they'd only met that day, who while seeming able were still not people he was sure he could rely on. As drawbacks went, that wasn't SO bad…

And now Daidouji was down with some sort of curse mark on her neck. That was actually cause for concern, since he knew it took a lot to bring her down. She was too bloody-minded otherwise, short of tying her up… and she probably knew escapology, so no matter how much he tied her up…

He took a moment to shake that disturbing thought out of his head.

Okay, still, no problem. They could deal with this, they just needed a plan.

"Syaoran-kun! Syaoran-kun!" Sakura called.

He blinked, realizing he'd just been standing there staring at the paper nuns through the Shield Card like they were goldfish. He turned, heading towards Sakura's side. There was real urgency in her voice, and she knelt over Tomoyo, who was now curled up in a ball, and Rinko, who was holding herself and rocking gently, ignoring Yuuto at her side.

"Something's happening to them!" Sakura said, but Syaoran was already kneeling, reaching for Rinko's collar even as Yuuto turned to him. There was a black mark on her neck as well.

"It's some kind of curse," Syaoran said, aware this might be a tad obvious. "I can't tell any more. I've never seen anything like it before."

"What's it doing to her?" Yuuto demanded.

"Intensifying latent feelings of apathy, depression, despair, indifference, disgust, isolation, jealousy, nihilism, resentment, anger, hatred, loathing, self-loathing, and eventually suicidal and murderous tendencies," Kageyama said, kneeling down next to them and methodically checking the girls vitals, something Syaoran chided himself for not doing.

Next to them, Shizuku tilted her head inquiringly. "How do you know, nano?"

Kageyama reached up and flipped down his collar.

"Oh," Shizuku said. "Nano."

Kageyama released the fabric of his collar, but made no move to tuck the black hand mark out of sight. "I'm used to it. I felt the urge to eradicate mankind a lot while I was growing up."

Shizuku nodded. "I understand, nano. I've felt something similar for the past 200 years now, nano."

"Oh? How have you dealt with it?" Kageyama asked, sounding genuinely curious.

"I got over it, nano," Shizuku said, then leaned down to drape herself over Yuuto. Rather inappropriately, in more than one sense. "Having a boy toy helps, nano."

"I will take the latter under advisement," Kageyama said.

"Get off him!" Himari and Kuesu cried.

Shizuku ignored him. "What did you do, nano?" she asked.

"I conquered the capital, declared myself Prime Minister and blotted out the sun," Kageyama said.

Shizuku blinked. "Oh! I thought you looked familiar, nano. I liked your old sunglasses, nano."

"Ah, derailment. I can see you're going to fit in just fine," Syaoran said flatly.

Above them, green light burned.

….

Yuuno really, really wished his Device would arrive already, if only for the comfort it would give. While he'd never had good synchronization with Raging Heart, it at least had default attack modes. He'd never been very good with attack spells himself. Oh, he could do the math for them well enough, but his mind was better at thinking how to defend against them than actually using them. He'd depended on his mildly-illegal chemical detonation slug-shooter and whip all these years for offensive power. He'd only gotten Raging Heart some time before he met Nanoha, and only because he needed a Device to carry his travel information around in and make phone calls. The one he'd used before, an antiquated model last used by one of his dead grand-relatives had finally conked. Raging Heart was something his uncle (or was it his cousin? Fifth cousin?) had put together using deliberately overly-offensive-oriented parts in his teens and had merely had on hand for Yuuno when he'd heard about the loss. While he missed the convenience of being able to take calls, he wasn't too distressed about Raging Heart moving its affection to Nanoha (except when convenient for guilt-tripping). They deserved each other.

As for his ring, he wasn't bad at it, but he wasn't particularly gifted with it either, though he was actually pretty good at defensive and analytical constructs. Except, right now, he needed offensive power. And while he did better attacking with the ring now than he ever had with Raging Heart, even he had to admit his constructs were lackluster. Really, sharks and chainsaws were fun and all, but in the end, he had to admit he was just copying Nanoha, and not doing a very good job of it, either.

He paused a moment and considered how Nanoha would deal with a magical kinda-kaijuu.

"Ring!" he ordered. "Read archived design and load. Create Construct: Starlight Breaker!"

One thing the ring had on magic: you didn't need to charge up spells.

The prefabricated Starlight Breaker wasn't big or flashy or all that destructive compared to the ones its original designer could now make, but nevertheless its kinetic force was enough to blast the three-legged thing across the titanic hallway and send it sliding past the stairs to the door at the end. He threw up both hands, a magic circle weaving itself at his feet. The unaided mental calculations came easily to him, as easy as the violence and destruction Nanoha could so quickly offer. This was his forte. Around the kaijuu, circles in two different shades of green appeared, constructs and magic intermixed in groups of three. The constructs, more easily controlled, wove around single chains of magic to form a simple braid even as they lashed out, wrapping around the giant.

Most went to the Brobdingnagian arm, locking it in place, other distributing themselves around the three legs and the torso while a few wrapped around the worm head opposite the arm. One wrapped around the head and neck like a garrotte and Yuuno applied pressure, queasy but hoping to finish this. Most things died when you destroyed their head, right?

It came to him a bit too late this thing had two heads.

The worm-head snapped, and a headache ran through Yuuno as it bit clean through his braided chains, magic and construct both torn through. By the second might he'd reassessed and let them chains go, darting upward and away from where he could see the others on the ground, trying to at least lure it way. Apprehension pricked at him. He'd never seen anything that could go through both magic and constructs at the same time. Oh, the corrupted Defense Program had managed it, but it had done so with overwhelming force. This force was far from overwhelming. It had just bitten. That made him want to be cautious. He knew at least three kinds of anti-magic phenomenon native to this world alone, four if you counted Saber. If this was a fifth, then facing it with only his ring would…

He froze.

"Ring, power check!" he cried.

"Ring power at 19 percent," it said helpfully.

Damn. And it didn't look like that number was going up. He supposed he was out of the range of Sakura's stone. A flicker of movement out of the corner of his eye, and he spun, a whip of green light appearing in his hands as he instinctively lashed out. The paper nun tore, but the others behind it merely greeted him with mouths wide open.

"Oh, poot," Yuuno sighed as a green revolver appeared in his other hand. The whip in his other hand changed, gaining a whirring line of chainsaw teeth. This might take a while.

….

It was dawning on Syaoran that perhaps they needed a more reliable form of communication.

"I think he's busy," Syaoran said, peaking around the corner and watching the green light that was Yuuno as it flew around, pursued by the little biting things. "You better stop before that big thing notices us."

Keroberos stopped blowing fire into the air, panting. The two were hidden behind the giant shoe rack near the door, out of sight of the kaijuu. "Can't you just call him on your phone?" he gasped. "That's how I talk to Yue."

Syaoran showed him. "No reception," he said, feeling let down. You expected technology to be reliable, damn it! What was the use of a phone that didn't work in an alternate space?

Even as he thought it he recognized it was a petty thought. He glanced over his shoulder. Tomoyo still lay there, awake but not conscious and was clamped around on one Sakura's legs like a rather evil and feminine barnacle. Rinko was laid out on the ground next to her, having had to be restrained when she tried to kill Himari with her shoe. It hadn't been very effective. Kageyama was sitting off to the side with Himari close by keeping a watchful eye. So far he hadn't fallen into any dark depression, but that meant the alternative was murderous impulse, according to him. They'd found another mark on Ayane, but she'd said it was nothing to be worried about. She was a nihilist and misanthrope anyway, or so she said.

Sakura had tried to help them, which had been done by basically throwing blue light at them. Indeed, Kageyama and Ayane had both looked lightened somewhat, but the stone's power hadn't lasted long, and neither had the effect. It was the place, Syaoran thought darkly. The creepiness wasn't just from its look. It was also literally insidious. He could feel the subtle, corrupting tentacles of its magic on him. He could feel it trying to make him cranky, make him sad, or depressed, anything to start the slow, downward spiral into some dark pit, any dark pit.

It was even affecting Sakura, he noted helplessly. Her face was set in lines of distress as she kept trying to almost literally 'blast' away the curse. Her determination was becoming insufficient though. The blue light was fading, becoming weaker after every blast. Sakura's frantic attempts to coax it brighter, by concentration, by pleading and by hitting it against the floor like a defective remote control, were all ineffective.

"That's not going to work," Kageyama said, looking over his shoulder at one particularly loud knock.

"You don't know," Sakura said with a stubborn pout. "We don't know HOW it works, not really. Maybe you need to hit it with the right knock to reset it and get it to work right again."

Kageyama's mouth twisted into a sneer, but with a visible effort he got the expression under control, taking a few deep breaths as Syaoran moved between him and Sakura. "It's just as likely," he said slowly in even tones, "to break it."

"No, we tested that," Keroberos said. "It's pretty much unbreakable."

Ayane looked up. "If you tested it," she said, voice even more inflectionless than usual, "then relying on the results of the tests are likely to be more useful that striking it like a spoiled child."

Syaoran's eyes flickered towards Tomoyo, but she hadn't moved, not even to give so much as a dirty look. That was a bad sign.

Sakura glared– well, pouted cutely in a mildly annoyed way, but Syaoran was sure she was trying for a glare– but settled herself down, slightly rearranging Tomoyo's grip on her leg to get comfortable.

Syaoran stared at her, then turned his attention to Kageyama, and tried not to think dark pit-esque thoughts as while he attempted to put together a plan that wouldn't involve making Sakura do something that would destroy her.

….

Sakura hated it when her dreams didn't make sense. It was even more annoying when she finally got to what her dreams showed her and they STILL didn't make sense. She felt it was the universe cheating somehow. Granted, it was turning out her dream was more symbolic than anything else in this instance. And the others in the UMGA had cautioned her against putting her trust completely in prophecies and visions of the future.

She felt useless. Her wand was hard in her hand, full of promise she had no idea what to do with. What could she do with it that could help Tomoyo and Rinko-san, besides shield them? It wasn't like there was a Card for this sort of thing! Well, none she could think of off the top of her head…

She turned the blue stone over in her other hand, in its fine wire lattice of gold, its golden chain spilling out of her hand to hang beneath it. It was failing her again. It hadn't done that in a while, not since they'd done those experiments to get it to work, and she'd found out it responded to her feelings. And she didn't know why. It wasn't like her desire to help them, the thought that she could help them had diminished. It was just… just… it all seemed so useless. Even if she wanted to help them, what could she do?

She felt like crying, but held it in. No, this was not the time to cry! Crying wouldn't do any good! She had to be strong, she had to find a way to help, to get the stone to work, to… to…

She shook her head hard, gripping her wand harder. No, no, she couldn't think like that! She remembered this shadow non-feeling, this hellish prelude to the end of the world that was her own private torment. It was what had come to her when all the world no longer loved, no longer considered one another worthy of consideration beyond the most utilitarian and mechanical. It was what had come to her, the feelings that rose within her, these feelings and one other, when she had seen the End of the World as Clow Reed had envisioned it so long ago, as Yue had forced her to experience. It was what she had felt to see a place where no one loved anything or anyone, not even themselves. Horror and despair.

Her hand, the one that cupped the stone, shook, slumping as darkness whirled around her, a force the Shield Card couldn't hold at bay, insidious as a twisted song of seduction to non-being. The stone's light faded, slowly dying as Sakura felt something begin to mark itself on her skin as the Shield Card collapsed, its mistress no longer there to support it, taking the first step into a pit of darkness. Yet even as she began to fall, in her other hand, her fist clenched on her wand, and from the pouch that hung from her thigh, from the bright pink-dyed leather, lovingly hand-cut and hand-stitched by the very hands that clung in quiet desperation to one of her legs, light burned, brilliant and pink.

Her own power and magic, loving given, gratefully accepted, tenderly cherished, slamming into the dark power of this cursed place. How dare you! the light seemed to scream. How dare you touch our master so!

53 Cards exploded into the air, a glowing pink light of rebellion and fury. They spun around her in concert even as the paper nuns, no longer held back by a barrier, surged towards the now-unprotected group. One Card began to glow, brighter and brighter, the other cards around spinning around it as it began to shine, a blue aura flickering around its pink radiance. As one of the paper nuns dove down towards Tomoyo, the singular Card exploded in black light and a howling, sucking void.

The Hope Card stood, small but determined, once the non-existence that had been the antithesis of all of Clow Reed's greatest creations, her hair a flag of battle, her wings a declaration of war.

"Leave them alone," she called, in a voice that had once known only tears and solitude and now spoke as one in a chorus, as 52 other voices lent their words to her. One hand shot forth and like a string of black pearly the familiars ceased to exist, devoured by the black nothingness. There would be no return on the sunrise. There was no going back.

The Hope Card spread her arms and darkness settled around them, a perfect dome of black. Sakura saw all this as if from a great distance through a tunnel, even as her hand still held tight to her wand. The Hope Card turned to face her, the other Sakura cards, still glowing pink, spinning around them in a vaguely protective cylinder, an almost laughably futile gesture.

"Master," she said softly, coming down to kneel in front of Sakura. Her voice was dim, and strangely far. That tunnel again. Sakura struggled, calling upon that third feeling that had risen within her, just as it had during Yue's Final Judgment.

Defiance.

The Hope Card reached down, and picked up the fallen stone, cradling it in her hand as she offered it to Sakura. Sakura's hand rose, fighting through the weight that seemed to drag her down. It strained, trying to bring her down, then shattered, and suddenly she felt light again, as if the weight of the world had been taken from her shoulders. Her hand met the Hope Card's and between their palms, the stone blazed like a blue star around a vaguely goddess-shaped nebula. At their touch, Sakura felt a familiar power stir together, with a familiar feeling. She was suddenly bombarded with memories and emotions. An airport. A bear. A tearful good bye and a promise, a sweet, sweet promise of another day. She remembered these feelings, this beautiful tangle.

"This is… my most precious feeling," Sakura whispered, realizing her eyes were closed. She was crying. She opened her eyes, gazing at the Hope Card in wonder. "I thought you took it away."

The Card smiled. "I did," she said, gently lifting Sakura's hand from hers, revealing the stone. It had grown larger to about half again the size of a golf ball, its form uneven now and no longer so smooth. The wire and part of the chain had been set within it, like something stuck in amber. "I never said I would never give it back. Master Clow was always one for difficult choices, but he is kind too. When he remembers to be. The light and strength of that day, I give back to you now, when you need it."

"Thank you," Sakura said, meaning it for both the gesture and the rescue. "I don't know what came over me. I just felt so…. helpless."

Abruptly, she remembered she wasn't alone and turned quickly to see what had happened to the others. Ayane was hunched over, muttered to herself with a silent intensity that was a bit frightening, while Kageyama had cleared been knocked on the head and was now unconscious. Himari, who'd likely done the clubbing, was on all fours, a crimson light in her eyes as she hissed, stalking towards Yuuto, who was sitting at the ground staring at nothing and repeating 'my fault… all my fault…' over and over again. Kuesu was on her knees, crying about how she could "never be with Yuuto", while Miu and Lizlet was mercifully passed out on the ground, unconscious. Kero was on the ground, small again. Syaoran still stood where he had, but his eyes were unfocused, and he was muttering "need a plan, we need a plan, need to protect everyone, get everyone to safety…".

Sakura's heart ached, the defiance rising stronger within her. She stood dramatically, or at least tried to but Tomoyo's grip on her leg proved something of a moment killer. The Hope Card had to help her, with a more than a touch of amusement, and even then Tomoyo wouldn't relinquish her foot. Sakura no longer felt useless. Directionless, maybe, but not useless. But what could she do?

Well, perhaps she could stop wallowing in misery and going with the flow and start putting together what she knew.

And what did she know? Sakura struggled to think. She would be the first to admit she was no great genius who could figure things out in a snap like one of the Magi or (Ayase) Yue-san or Conan-kun on TV. Still, who was there to do anything? She could just vaguely see the green flashes through the black bubble, so Yuuno-kun was still busy. There was just her. So, what did she know?

"This place…" she said hesitantly, musing aloud. "It's like Kageyama-san said. It fills us with darkness. But I fought free of it… and the stone seems to help, at least a little. But why…?"

Abruptly, something Kuro-san said to her came to mind, a confusing conversation she hadn't really thought of.

"I think this stone is solidified hope. Hope, the emotion, somehow congealed and solidified as a solid chunk of blue light."

"Hope," Sakura said. "Hope takes away despair." She turned to the Hope Card. "Is that why you're here?"

The Card paused, then shrugged. "I… don't know. It just felt like you needed me. I do not know if my name is now my nature."

Sakura looked down at the stone, cupping it in her hands. She closed her eyes, letting her feelings pour into it. Her certainty that she would be able to help everyone, even if she didn't know how to yet. That they would leave this place, together and unharmed. That everything would be all right. The stone blazed with every heartbeat, becoming brighter and brighter, spreading its brilliance in all directions. Spreading it everywhere… so that only a little went to where it was needed, Sakura realized with a start. She narrowed her eyes, trying to get it to gather, to come together, so that all its light, its hope would go to one place and do the most good, but it didn't want to. It flickered and danced but remained free, free as a song on the wind, as boundless as…

"As hope itself," Sakura murmured, completing the thought. Abruptly, it all became simple and clear to her. Of course it wasn't going to go all in one place as commanded. To obey edicts wasn't hope's nature. Hope naturally went everywhere, spreading and becoming larger and larger, with every fulfillment forging new paths, every barrier something to overcome. No, you needed something else to direct hope. You needed… you needed… "A symbol," she murmured, remembering a shield with the letter S on it, and flags, and twists of ribbon, and little colorful cards from a little shop that were said to be magic and made you better at things. They weren't and they didn't… but they gave you hope and a direction for that hope to go.

She looked at the stone. It needed to become a symbol, something that gave the hope that it was purpose, meaning, and thus control. Hope, undirected and without purpose was just a good feeling. But hope towards a cause…

It made things change.

But how to change it? Into what? What shape–?

"I've seen this kind of material before, in another color. I've never managed to examine Green Lantern-chan's ring, but I have used a Power Ring. The White Ring that Archer-nii made. The Wolkenritter said that during their fight with him, he made rings in other colors. Red, yellow, pink… and blue." Kuro pointed at the stone. "Same texture. Same hardness. Different color. And I bet you if we can compare it to one of the Lanterns' rings, it'd be the same too, just green."

Sakura stared at the rock. Well, why not a ring? Kuro-san had theorized the shape added to the control, but would just any ring do? How was it done exactly? Kuro-san had gone on about materials limitations of both computers and magic, but how...?

Something bounced off the black dome. Sakura blinked, realizing she'd actually been lost in thought. Outside, Yuuno lay on the edge of the dome, legs in the air and head underneath, as if he'd fallen head-first from a height. Slowly, his legs drooped to the ground.

"Ow," she heard him say. A moment later, his fist was frantically pounding on the barrier.

"Let him in!" Sakura cried. A hole opened in the dark dome and Yuuno scrambled through with an alacrity that was more fitted to his ferret form.

"Sakura, can you power up my ring?" Yuuno asked a bit desperately. He was shaking, blinking his eyes as if trying to clear his mind. "I kinda ran out of energy and it was too dangerous to pull my lantern out..."

Sakura raised the stone, willing it to shine, to glow and replenish Yuuno-kun's power even as she tapped it to the ring. With a shudder, he collapsed into a boneless heap, the black mark on the back of his neck barely visible though his blond hair as his ring remained dark. Despite herself, Sakura stumbled back, then knelt down at his side. "Yuuno-san! Yuuno-san!" she cried.

"…not as good as her… not as good as her… not as good as her…" he was muttering. He blinked, his eyes gaining a flicker of awareness, before Sakura felt a pulse of something foul and he let out a weak moan, this light in his eyes fading again.

"Yuuno-san!" Sakura found herself crying. She could feel the despair trying to get back within her, to sink its hooks back in and pull. Sakura raised her gaze, wand and stone in hand as her Cards surrounded her. Above her, the looming monstrosity of the giant and its paper nuns towered over her, dominating her field of vision. Anger flashed in Sakura, a hot, red anger, and her defiance roared. No… no, she would not let these things hurt the people around her.

She'd seen this happen many times before on TV, in anime and manga, and had heard countless stories of it, but she had never done it herself. Oh, she had spoken, given comfort and solace and explanation, but she had never really done this before. She had often wondered why people did it. To her it had always just seemed embarrassing and kind of pointless. Why did everyone seem to do it so much? After all, when they did it, it was always so smooth and perfect and so…practiced, as if they'd spent time getting everything just right, and probably had a lot prepared for different occasions. But now, as the urge came over her, Sakura realized there was no practice involved. There was only you and the moment.

For the first time in her life, Kinomoto Sakura gave a Speech.

"Lurker in darkness, bringer of despair, I am Kinomoto Sakura, and I defy you!" she cried and in her hand the stone blazed, brilliant as the sky. It was a sky that would not let the coming of night banish it.

"You who bring sadness…"

From where she lay, Tomoyo let out a sound, soft and sad, like a kitten alone in the rain.

"…you who bring pain…"

Hope. She had used it to make the stone affect things, to heal them, to make things better.

"…you who bring harm…"

The giant's over-sized fist slammed down into the black dome of the Hope Card, sending paper nuns flying as its futile impact dispersed outwards,

"I will not let you do as you please!"

She had never tried to use the stone on itself.

"I am not just some girl!"

The paper nuns swarmed back, heedless even as another impact rocked the dome.

"I am a proud Mahou Shoujo of the United Magical Girl Association!"

She did so now, giving it all her purpose, her will, trying to make it understand, to comprehend that it needed to change, to become easier for her to use…

"I am the one honored with the name Star Wing!"

Both mouths of the giant roared and the worm-like right appendage descended, jaws wide.

"I am one trusted with the hearts of my friends!"

She needed it to be more than that now, to be as responsive as a ring, even if it was a different color.

"I am the heir of Clow Reed, the Mistress of the 53 beautiful Cards…"

The worm slammed into the dome, teeth scraping on its surface…

"And I shall shed my light against your black evil!"

She took all her hope…

"In the name of truth!"

The Hope Card gasped as cracks began to break across her dome.

"In the name of love!"

All of her tomorrows…

"In the name of friendship, and peace, and happiness!"

The black dome shattered as magic was denied and broken as if it were a mere illusion.

"In the name of justice, come and face me!"

And made it into a light, praying, praying for a miracle…

"The most powerful sorceress in the world!"

In her hands, golden wire snapped as the stone changed.

She remembered the words from her dream as time seemed to slow.

"In fearful day, when without light…"

Paper nuns swarms and disappeared into black non-existence as black spheres consumed them.

"With my heart full, my soul ignites!"

The gaping worm's maw came to swallow them destroying any black sphere in its path.

"When all seems lost in black of night…"

A sword the side of a building cleaved the worm right off the shoulder as Tachikawa Satoka, crying in defiance about how she was better than Ayane, came running from the other end of the giant faux house where she had been nearly forgotten.

"Look to the stars- for Hope burns bright!"

In her left hand, Sakura held a small, round, glassy thing, about the size of a tennis ball, open at one end like some kind of mosquito coil holder. On either side rose two arcs that curved out and then down along the spherical shape. A small mushroom-like flat disk stuck out of the top, as if a handle for two fingers. Within the shape, blue light glowed, cool and warm at the same time, bright and constant.

And around one finger, Sakura felt a ring.

One of the giant's three legs swept towards her, and the Hope Card threw a sphere of darkness in its path. Half of the leg dissolved even as the paper nuns came at them, some diving down at those on the ground. The round, glassy lantern fell as Sakura spun, fist closing and arm rising in a gesture she'd seen Nanoha do dozens of times. Saw them and let her hope rise, to surge. These things would not be hurting anyone! That was the hope. She would make it come true.

Light flared from the ring, and not just one but streams of blue light streamed from the ring, splitting and homing in on the paper nuns. Dozens of blue scissors tore through them, snipping them into pieces.

Sakura blinked. Well. That had never happened before. There was no time to consider that right then, however. The wand came up. "Windy!" she called. One card from the swarm of pink around her flew, touching the end of the wand and dissolving into yellow stands that came together into the first Card she had ever used. The wind rose once more, a gale that sent the paper nuns and pieces of paper nuns flying back. Others were taken by curved red daggers that spun like boomerangs, tearing through the creatures.

Sakura threw blue light at the giant, willing it back, sending her wish through the ring for it to be driven back. The light wove, forming a giant hand that shoved the eldritch, Lovecraftian thing. It moved jerkily back, two legs trying to do the work of three, a broken tripod. The Hope Card swept her hand andthe giant thing gave a discordant roar as two more spheres dissolved its legs, making them cease to exist. It fell on its back, the three stumps flailing as its right shoulder bubbled, jaws extruding as another serpent-like worm grew from it.

Sakura thrust her fist into the air. "Everyone, wake up!" she cried as the light exploded from around her.

At her feet, Yuuno shuddered… then his eyes snapped open, his gaze clear as the mark on his neck burned away. He leapt to his feet, left hand coming up and reaching, seeming to disappear up to his bicep before he made a pulling gesture, and suddenly he was holding a… well, a green lantern. He held his fist in front of it. "In Brightest Day, in Blackest night, no evil shall escape my sight!" he cried as others began getting to their feet. "Let those who worship evil's might, beware my power, Green Lantern's light!-!-!"

His ring flared with light as he glared upward, staring at the fallen monster. "Round two," he said, then look sideways at Sakura, surrounded in a shining blue glow, her own ring bright. He blinked. "Whoa… how long was I out?"

"I'll tell you later, Yuuno-san," Sakura said. "Right now, we need to finish this."

She leapt into the air, trusting to the ring as wings of blew light exploded from her back, and she felt it lifting her. For a moment, she let out a laugh. This, she knew. The freedom of flight, she knew. Below her, she saw a fading blue trail and a rising green one as Yuuno leapt after her, his ring announcing power was at 138 percent and rising. The Hope Card and Windy Card rose to her side, one in a roar of her element, the other with uncanny silence.

Yuuno's chains appeared again, binding it down as the Windy Card provided her own assistance, golden ribbons of winding to trap their enemy as well. Sakura sent masses of scissors at the paper nuns who had followed them. Below, the others were retaliating with sword, Gate and magic, the influence on them broken, though Sakura knew it would only last so long. They needed to finish this quickly. Sakura spread her hands, feeling her hope rise. She called on Yuuno's hope, of her Cards' hope, of the hope of those with them, praying they gave her their strength. Her ring blazed as she took her hope for victory, shaping it into with blue light. It appeared before her as a sliver, and then a line, until before her floated a glittering sword in shades of purest blue. Its blade was wide and light as the sky, its crossguard wide and curled bladewards. She thought she vaguely recognized it as she grasped it in her left hand. Her ring flared, and with a cry she swung her blade, sending through all their hope, all their dreams, all their wish for victory in this instant. From the sword forged of hopes and dreams came a roaring rush of light, a river of power that slammed into the giant…

The world began to ripple around them, and then it seemed to dissolve. Everything was breaking apart like wet tissues, moving in a roiling, collapsing wave. Reality began reasserting itself, taking them back to where they had been. Night covered the world now as something struck the ground where the giant had been with a plinking sound, bouncing slightly before spinning to a stop on the ground under the bridge, along an artificial river bank.

….

In the center of the universe, on the planet Oa, the Guardians in their citadel shuddered.

"There it is again. Anyone else feel that? I'm sure I'm feeling Blue being used somewhere…"

"Ganthet…"

"It wasn't me this time! I'm right here! And I haven't used blue in years!"

His coworkers gave him a flat look.

"Seriously, haven't used it since I kept that star from exploding on my last vacation, I swear!"

(Green Lanterns aren't the only ones subject to that vacation thing.)

One of them tilted his head, concentrating. "It's coming from Sector 2814…"

There was silence. Then they all sighed. "Aw, crap."

Another beat.

"NOT IT!" they all cried at the same time.

….

Yuuno landed and approached the fallen object warily. It looked like some kind of spindle, or possible a really short hatpin, done in shades of black. The spherical head held fine designs upon it. Inside the head looked like some kind of crystal…

Black crystal. Never a good sign. Picking it up carefully with a pair of tweezers, he sealed it inside a jar for later study.

Behind him, he heard Syaoran brightly saying, "So, that's our membership pitch. Do you have any other questions?"

….

Tomoyo would never forget that day.

As she rose from nightmares into a glorious light, the first thing she saw was Sakura, rising into the sky, wings of blue light to either side and flanked by two of her Cards, the rest of shining pink train behind beneath her. She had eyes for nothing else, only Sakura, the light and wind dancing around her. The eyes of the love of her life were more determined than she had ever seen, and absolutely indomitable as she held a blazing sword. On her knees, she had wept at the beauty of it.

The first coherent words out of her mouth, however, were, "SAKURA-CHAN MADE HER FIRST MAGICAL GIRL SPEECH… AND I DIDN'T GET TO RECORD IT!-!-!-!-!-!"

….

Somewhere in the vast, empty tracts of the universe, a giant blue bird flew through the night, listening for a call it hadn't heard in a long time…

….

- To be continued…

….

A/N: I was just thinking how the Witches of Umineko would make for REALY SCARY ENEMIES…

Tomoyo is normal. Yes, it might not seem like it, but at the end of the day, physiologically she is a completely (biologically) ordinary girl. She might use magic, she might be around magic, she might use Shinmeiryuu, but all in all, she is a completely to-specs human without a drop of magic to her name. The chi doesn't count. Everyone has it, she just knows how to use it. It doesn't count as magic, which despite it can be used like it and vice-versa is a completely different metaphysical force altogether. Hence why she was mind-whammied by the witch. I've made it abundantly clear she has issues. Said issues would be more than enough to drive her to either murder or suicide, under Witchly influence.

Only the epilogue to go! Please check out my ebook!

Until next time, this is Shadow, signing off.