The Grindstone


"Alright, so let's get our facts straight and work from there," Ranma said.

He was walking down the street towards where he was to meet the Senshi for the day's training, fifteen minutes until nine o'clock in the morning. The massive black bag he used to hide Nemesis was by his side instead of behind him for once, and his right hand was inside the zipped compartment to establish the contact between them. Her aura soothed him and helped keep his mind focused.

"Demonata are trying to get into our universe and slaughter us. Nothing new there. However, right now someone or something is trying especially hard in crossing demons over, and so far he or she has been successful, no matter how limited the results. We need a name for this guy. How's Big Bad sound for now?"

Nemesis, the illusion of her walking next to him, smiled in amusement. "Tacky, but I see no need to honor whomever it is with anything better. Continue."

Ranma nodded once. "Right, so Big Bad is getting into people's minds, somehow convincing anyone with a shred of magical ability to open up pathways between our universe and the Demonata's. Additionally, he has twelve mages working for him, all of which are currently after my head. Now, here's what we know for sure: not only does Big Bad have access to Greater Demonata, he has at least one Demon Master with him. Maybe he is a Demon Master. Either way, only one of those have the ability to "design" Demonata."

"You say 'he'. Don't forget the last 'Big Bad' was female." She was talking about Metaria. "As were most of the other Senshi's enemies before our arrival."

Shrugging a shoulder, Ranma said, "Eh, let's just assume it's a he. Anyways, let's keep this in perspective. So Big Bad is or has a Demon Master, so all he needs to do is cross that over, have it summon in its army, and just like that Earth is destroyed. Now that seems to be his intent, so why hasn't he done it yet?"

Nemesis hummed in thought, then her expression hardened. "I think I know. Terra's lack of magic. If Demon Masters are beings of magic, similar to Kresh, they need magic to survive. I can only assume that by their greater power they require more magic, perhaps more than a simple portal – as we've seen so far – lets in from their universe. Also, the summoned army will need a steady magic supply. So, potentially, this Big Bad hasn't done it yet because he can't."

"Which would mean Big Bad needs a way to supply that magic, either by healing Earth or using an alternative source. And so he sends our mystery mage in to work on that." Ranma paused. "Well I'll be damned. We're actually getting somewhere with this. But let's finish with the facts first."

"Who the hell are you talking to?" Ami blurted from over Ranma's left shoulder. The girl had defied his order to drop from school, instead showing up to class early that morning. So, true to his word, he showed up at the school, found her in class, swung her kicking and screaming over his shoulder, and left the building. He still had his arm around her legs, intent on carrying her all the way to their current makeshift training ground.

"Be quiet, Mercury," he muttered absently. The girl had never liked him anyways. "Now, Big Bad. Thanks to our dear Hotaru-chan in Crystal Tokyo, we know that he is hiding out in the Demonata universe, which provides a legitimate problem. I highly doubt that we can just walk through one of the portals directly into Big Bad's lair. We need a name for that too. Ideas?"

"Realm of Badness?" Nemesis coined teasingly.

"Hideout of Doom?" Kresh offered, walking behind them.

"We'll work on that later," Ranma affirmed. "For now, let's use some Tolkien. I'm certain one of those portals will take us into Mordor, but not Mount Doom itself. I for one am not too keen on fighting my way through legions of Demonata, thousands of which will be of the Greater assortment, just to reach Big Bad's front door." They might not get the reference, but they would understand it enough.

Continuing, Ranma said, "Final few facts: the consequences. At worst, failure to stop Big Bad will mean the destruction of mankind. At best, failure will result in one of the alternatives, one of which is that 'Hotaru-chan kills Ranma' Crystal Tokyo. Either way, I appear to be dead, so let's make sure we get this right."

Nemesis patted his arm. "I'm sure that Crystal Tokyo is only a small possibility. Other alternatives may yield more positive outcomes. Now, you are forgetting two things: first, one mage is still unaccounted for in the area, although we may know what he is after. Second, that because the mages are after you, it implies that either this Big Bad holds a personal grudge against you or you provide a sufficient threat to him. Either way, Big Bad knows you, Ranma. We must consider why and how."

"Dammit," Ranma sighed. "I didn't even think of that. But even though I've pissed off a lot of people – just ask Mercury here – who the hell could it be? I mean, just about everyone who could be holding a grudge against me died in the Moon Kingdom's fall, and there's no way anyone on Coronis would have recognized me when I worked as Metaria's assassin. Metaria herself is gone for good, her generals dead, and whatever's left of her army is banished in that Negaverse – whatever the hell that is.

"On the Demonata front, all that comes to mind is Metaria, Lord Loss, and Sir Anquish. We ruled out Metaria, and Sir Anquish I sent to hell with the Eris Ascension. Lord Loss, however, should still be under banishment from Madam Marietta," Ranma said, and Kresh grunted an affirmative behind him.

"What about the former comrade you let live?" Nemesis asked. "The one from Queen Metaria's Combat Squad named Tachi."

Ranma recalled her. The Combat Squad, those sent by Metaria to exterminate the planets during the war. He had been a part of them. They were Metaria's personal assassins, specially conditioned and trained in their work. Conditioned through torture and then a staged rescue, to become loyal to the Dark Moon Kingdom. Thanks to Nemesis, Crystal, and Ryu, Ranma was able to see through the lies, but they hadn't.

When the war came, so had they. Ranma left to fight them, killing almost all of his once-friends. There were three he didn't kill himself. On Jupiter, the one named Athena had turned herself into a living bomb of magic, and he had knocked her out to let the energies bleed out first. Senshi Jupiter had had the instructions to kill her once the magic inside her diminished. On Mercury, the Combat Squad's leader had been too skilled to beat. Ranma had tricked him into entering Space, Xycell's domain, where the Space Keeper had killed him. And then there was Tachi, the girl sent to Earth. Ranma had beat her and successfully convinced her to leave Metaria, so he had thought.

"It's possible but unlikely. Even if she had a reason to hold a grudge against me, she didn't know my fighting style, let alone to the extent of coming up with a counter to it. Besides, Big Bad has to be strong enough to subdue a Demon Master, like Metaria, or a Master himself. So I think its more likely that whomever he is, he has been observing us – maybe through a consultant – to the point where he deemed me a sufficient threat, not someone with an old grudge," Ranma concluded.

"You're a madman," Ami sighed from her place over his shoulder. "I have been kidnapped by a madman."

Ranma ignored her. "But we need to focus on the problem and how to solve it. While the identity of Big Bad might help, it's not important currently. Nem, what can we do to stop him?"

The green haired woman shrugged. "Presently, our possible paths of action are limited. We know he is influencing those with magical ability. Find a way to stop that. We know he is using them to open the portals to their universe. Find a way to stop that. We know he needs a way to establish a steady magic supply in order to cross a significant amount of demons over. Stop that. More radical courses are trying to engage Big Bad himself by going into his Mordor. Another radical idea is to send someone through a portal to scout said Mordor. Perhaps one of your familiar can blend in and spy on him for us."

Ranma grunted. "And all things are easier said than done. Dammit, so besides finding a possible reason for our mystery mage, we got nothing."

Nemesis hummed. "Perhaps. Although, dearest Avatar, perhaps we are looking at this wrong. We are working under the assumption that Big Bad's intent is to destroy all of humanity, like a Demonata. What if, as Hotaru had implied in Crystal Tokyo, the threat isn't Big Bad trying to cross a Demon Master over? That would make even our guess on the mage inaccurate."

She's right. Ranma cursed inside his mind, quite colorfully, but outwardly he only grunted again. "On the other hand, every Big Bad we've ever come across has always been "wipe out mankind." Also, the very likely possibility that he is a Demon Master means that would be his ultimate plan. Hotaru-chan's hint could just as well mean that while the intent is wiping out mankind, there are other ways than crossing armies or a Master over."

"Lord Ranma," Kresh mentioned from behind him, but Ranma had felt it too.

Someone had started gathering magic elsewhere in the city, not too far from them. It didn't necessarily mean that whomever it was was a brainwashed magically gifted person hellbent on butchering fellow humans, but with recent times, Ranma knew better than to assume coincidence. It had only been a day since the last attempt, and already there was another.

He sighed, veering off course to head towards the gathering magic. "Sorry, Mercury, we got another fool attempting to cross demons over. Just gonna make a quick stop before we head over to the training ground."

"How nice of you to inform me," Ami said sweetly. "It's almost as if I haven't been taken against my will by an uneducated jock of questionable mental health, whom has been talking to himself for the last ten minutes!"

Ranma grinned, patting the back of her leg. "I knew you'd understand."

"Quick kiss before I go," Nemesis mentioned, a smile of her own on her face.

Ranma slowed his walk to lean over, and the following kiss wouldn't have been deemed proper for public in Japan if they could see both persons rather than one man moving oddly.

"What are you doing?" Ami asked finally, beginning to shift futilely in her captivity.

Ranma and Nemesis broke their kiss to shared amusement, and the woman untangled herself from him. Ranma even had to shift his balance from the loss of her body against his, and his hair still tingled as if her hands had been running through it and left it messy.

"I love you," she said in parting, giving him a wink.

"I..." Ranma started to say back, and then hesitated. Nemesis halted in her fading away, turning solid again, eyes watching him eagerly to see if he'd go on. There was a smile on her pink lips as she waited for him. "I love you too." There, he said it.

Nemesis beamed at him, sneaking in another kiss, and then vanished for good.

"YOU WHAT?" Ami shrieked, embarrassment obvious in her voice.

XxX

And strangely, that's where I saw her again. Bec MacConn. I found the guy attempting the crossing, and Bec had shown up and slit his throat. Cold, efficient, deadly. Exactly what I needed. She mentioned that she was done hiding, that she had the ability to help and that she would. I could always use another soldier, and Bec came fully trained – the only proficient magic user I met that wasn't an enemy.

Of course, there was the slight issue when Demonata-slayer met Urgok. Fortunately nothing a swift wrist slapping and explanation couldn't divert, but ultimately she trusted Kresh about as much as Uranus did.

To think that wasn't the only familiar face to show up that day, either...

XxX

"Sorry we're late," Ranma called as he entered the walled and abandoned construction site – their current training ground. "There were a few bumps on the way."

He slung Ami off his shoulder, gently placing her back on her feet, and the girl quickly made her way away from him. Bec and Kresh followed them, still keeping half an eye on each other, neither trusting the other not to suddenly plant a knife in their back. Honestly, they were acting like children, and Ranma made sure to keep himself mostly between the two of them.

As the Senshi and Endymion made their way over to him, Ami hiding behind Minako and Crystal and whispering furiously, Ranma brought his hand to the hidden mark over his left shoulder. Focusing just a bit of magic into it, he thought, You can gate over now.

The words carried over the link to every Urgok, though they knew who he was speaking to. There was a loud ripping sound as both Hunters gated in, using the small amount of magic Nemesis was leaking into the air to reach him. Gating was a useful trick made by possible by his bond with them, a demon master's way of summoning familiar.

Immediately, Ranma grabbed Femern by the shoulders and bodily moved the Urgok to his left side, away from Bec. The redhead only gave Ranma a shrewd look before shaking her head.

"Ranma, who is this?" Crystal asked as they reached him. Everyone was here, Ranma found. Xycell and Yuka both stood near Setsuna, while the moon cats hung off to the side in human form.

At the question, Ranma scratched the base of his pigtail. Setsuna is so gonna kill me if she finds out Bec is from the past. "She's a friend, by the name Bec. She's damn good at magic, probably better than me, though she lacks the power a Senshi does." Ranma then introduced each of the others to Bec, carefully pointing at each so she could use her perfect memory to get them all first try.

"Where does he meet all these people?" Rei asked Makoto, gesturing to all the new additions to their group. It was true, Ranma realized, that he had turned their secluded Sailor Scout team into a force full of unusual beings, from the Space Keeper to benevolent Demonata. Thus were the changes he had wrought by his presence in the past.

He ignored the comment. "Now, starting today we are going to have a ton of ground to cover. You are all starting to get your attacks out faster, which is good, but as I mentioned yesterday, there have been changes in what we are facing. Our enemies can use magic, like Bec here. While you can combat most magic with your Senshi spells, it just makes more sense if you were to learn it too."

Several of the girls grew visibly excited at that, the prospect of learning to use magic like in fairy tales, while others, Setsuna and Crystal, blinked in surprise. They knew he had never attempted training them in something like this before. Before they could ask why, he continued.

"Magic is dangerous," he started, then paused. "No... My magic is dangerous. Bec here uses magic differently than I do, and I'm sure its much safer. Unfortunately, even if Bec was willing to try teaching you, we don't have the time for you to learn verbal spells and incantations. My way, once you get the hang of it you can do nearly anything."

Ranma glanced at Bec and saw her listening to him, obviously curious about other fields of magic. "This method is intent. I learned it when I lived on the Urgok's home world, and there were times I had nearly killed myself even with the close guiding of an expert. I'm not an expert, and each of you girls have even more magic to make bigger bangs when things go wrong.

"I want each of you to understand how easily things can go wrong, too. Learning this way, you are teaching your magic to respond to intent. Intent is guided by thoughts, and the spell is crafted by the magic provided. Give too much magic, even if you only want enough fire to light a candle you may end up with an inferno that burns everything in a ten yard radius around you. Yourself included. If you are handling magic and a stray thought reaches you – just one small thought – your magic could respond to it. That can be anything harmless like changing someone's clothes to something deadly like stopping someone's heart from within."

Ranma paused for a moment, organizing his thoughts. He wanted to start these girls with raw magic, learning it and how to manipulate it. Then fire, learning how intent can turn raw magic into something else. Start them off small, let them feel how much raw magic could turn into how much flame. Teach them how to craft fire without burning themselves... If he was fortunate, they might be able to accomplish all that in one day.

"I'll give you all a practical demonstration of how magic can turn a fight before we start, but right now I want to make sure you understand the danger of this. Too much eagerness can make you careless. You get careless before you can properly handle this, people are going to get hurt or die. If I find anyone trying more than exactly as I instruct, I'm knocking you out." Young, undisciplined girls. He was just asking for trouble by teaching them this, but he had no choice.

Right to it then. "Now, all of you spread out. Everyone who's not a Senshi, you guys can watch for now, but for the love of God, I don't want to see any fighting while we work. And don't worry Endymion, I have something for you to do too. I'll get to you in a minute."

They began to move, though Xycell remained in place. His hand coming to Haruka's shoulder stopped her too. Ranma's old friend watched him steadily. "We are leaving."

Ranma didn't react immediately, instead opening his bag and withdrawing Nemesis. Once he had her back in his hands, the serenity flowing into him, he set aside the bag. Finally, planting the weapon before him, Ranma regarded the Space Keeper.

It didn't take a genius to realize what he intended. The Space Keeper leaving with the girl who had proven to be the future Space Keeper? This was to be an apprenticeship. Whether Xycell meant to step down finally or, in worst case, he wanted the girl to know her Duty if he were to be cut down early (possibly by her), Ranma couldn't tell.

Losing an Outer like this would be a blow, but he had more than enough firepower to make up for it now. "For how long?"

"Weeks at minimum," Xycell said. "Years for the full training."

Ranma sighed. He noticed the blond had a pack over her shoulders. At least she was willing. "This is fair well, then."

"It is," Xycell acknowledged. "Should you require my assistance, you know how to summon me. Though, I ask that you refrain from doing so unless in the most dire of circumstances. The needs of the universe outweigh the needs of a single planet, even the Chaos Generator's."

Ranma nodded, extending a hand for the Space Keeper. "Stay safe, friend." He winked. "Keep the kid safe too. She's got a bit of a temper, but she means well."

Haruka only folded her arms and looked away with a huff, while Xycell stared at the hand for a few moments. Then, his pale and bony hand escaped his cloak to trade grips with him, and he nodded once. "Goodbye, Ranma."

Ranma turned to Haruka. "Hey, brat, make sure you've said your goodbyes to everyone before you go. And hurry back. We're gonna need you." Maybe not, but always better to be prepared.

Everyone was waiting for this great magic demonstration, but Ranma only stood there, watching as Haruka made her way over to Michiru and exchanged private words with her. They had likely already discussed it, but extended goodbyes were always hard. He would know – training trip with Genma, apprenticeship with Senshi Nemesis, the friends he would make on planets before moving onto the next...

Finally, Xycell space traveled away with her, leaving behind a teary eyed Neptune. Ranma focused back on the present. He had his own little soldiers to train, and Xycell had his. Either way, they were all getting forged into weapons to prepare for this threat.

"All of you, transform," Ranma called out. The Senshi turned their attention to him and did so. He tried to not focus too much on Setsuna and Crystal as they did.

Even little Hotaru, still struggling against her weakness and the gravity, was to be a part of this.

Once the eight Senshi were facing him, Ranma motioned Crystal to stand down. He had words for her too, but she already knew magic well enough. "Now, I want all of you to attack me. No holding back. I won't move an inch from this spot. Setsuna, Hotaru, you too."

There was a startled moment of silence. Then, Setsuna brought her Garnet Rod up, beginning her Senshi attack, and as she did, the rest followed.

Ranma watched the spells building up, Setsuna's already having been released. The sheer firepower of them all at once would be difficult to overcome, even for him. Fortunately, this wasn't about him stopping them. Using his scythe as a surrogate Henshin Rod, Ranma quickly shifted into his Senshi form, reached into the stars above to Nemesis's remains, ripped the magic out of her and flooded himself with it. He did all that quick as thought, in nearly an instant.

And then he turned the magic onto the poor Senshi.

A simple spell of intent, likely the most overused in his day besides fire. Vines ripped free from the ground, dozens of them. They coiled around the girls' legs, more snaking around their arms, and in a flash all seven of them were hauled off their feet and left dangling in the air. The spells they had begun to gather dissipated as they lost concentration, while Ranma used his scythe to cut through Setsuna's – he used to have to infuse the weapon with ki to do that, but now that Nemesis was in there, her entire being, it was already done.

Ranma grinned at the trapped Senshi. "As you can see, magic kinda works like that."

Setsuna got enough leverage to sever the vines holding her with her key, and upon landing she did a slash that cut free two others. Ranma didn't try stopping her, instead releasing the others and having the vines sink back into the ground.

"Vines like that are often used as snares, as you could guess. They are fairly easy to beat even without magic, as Setsuna demonstrated, but if there's enough of them holding you, the only way out is magic. Simple blades of air to cut them, a jet of fire, withering them – you can get creative," Ranma said.

He turned to those that weren't Senshi. "Endymion, I want you to train with Kresh. You've got a hand for a sword, and with your ability to imbue things with magic, like those roses, Kresh can turn you into a real terror." The college student muttered a bit, but he nodded. "Bec, I don't have much for you. You can continue watching if you want, or you can go back home. I'll keep you posted if we run into trouble, though you already know what to do." He tossed her a spare communicator, to the annoyance of Luna.

The Priestess seemed fascinated by the technology, though she shook her head. "I'll stay here. I like being near magic again."

Fair enough. Ranma was fortunate enough to always be with Nemesis, surrounded by the magic she produced. He noticed that Crystal, the Senshi of the Moon, had approached him. He nodded at her. "I wanted to talk about your fight yesterday."

She arched an eyebrow at him. "Did I do wrong?"

"You were timid with your power," Ranma clarified, and she blinked at him. He gestured at their uniforms. "As a Senshi, the only limit to the near limitless reserves of our planets is our bodies. I can draw out Nemesis's magic, fill myself with it and use it, but eventually my body starts to fail if I use too much. Organs shut down, the systems falter, muscles lose control, nerves deaden... You know of this.

"You also told me that you haven't yet found a limit to how much the Ginzuisho can channel at once. You can guide the Moon's magic through it without ramifications, without the limits. The sheer power you should have been tossing around should have splattered those two from the start, even the Greater Demonata."

Crystal didn't lose any poise at his words, but she seemed to hesitate. "I was being careful with my power. I too was interested in how the ascension of a Senshi would affect my ability. There wasn't a need to do more at the time."

Ranma nodded understanding. "But Crystal, you have all that power and I think you don't know how to use it yet. Most of what you had used was just raw magic. This Big Bad we are going up against will either be a Demon Master or another like Metaria. The power you have now may be the only way to see this through."

"Big Bad?" Crystal asked, smiling slightly.

Ranma shrugged. "We needed a name for him. It works for now. Seriously though, I know you're the Queen and not my student, but I would like you working on your power while I help the girls. Just start with simple spells and give them enough juice to be overwhelming. Find out how to snap things like that off quickly, and then move up to bigger things – spells so complex and powerful they can't be countered by normal men on first try. That's the kind of spell that'll give even a Demon Master pause, and if you build an arsenal of them, we can give Big Bad a real fight."

"Spell crafting is a step up from "intent" magic, but I will heed your advice," Crystal admitted. Then, she smiled at him. "Intent magic. When I learned, it was called will by my instructors. To will spells into existence, to guide and shape magic through will. And to accidentally wish ill-will towards another could be devastating if your magic responded."

A formal education versus Adafild's hands-on method was the difference, but the results were the same. Ranma nodded to her, and she stepped back, allowing the others to approach him for their lesson. The girls were all bubbling with excitement, though Setsuna remained calm and controlled.

Ranma's advice for Crystal was something he was planning on beginning for himself. Spell crafting wasn't too difficult, merely a way of easily repeating the same spell without having to focus so hard. Once one put a label on a series of results, the mind and thus magic could easily reproduce it without the person having to directly intend for each part. Establishing a 'spell' was just a quicker and easier way of focusing the intent, practically leaving it automatic. A name for the spell or an incantation wasn't necessary, but that too was just another way of making the focus easier.

He could intend for three rings of fire to form around a target, each a carefully restrained band of tremendous heat too bright to look at, and then cause them to constrict the target, likely searing the poor soul into crispy pieces. Or he could cast the Heaven's Claw on the target and follow up with something else in the same amount of time.

Hmm... "Heaven's Claw." Might be some potential there, Ranma thought to himself.

Of course, he knew less about Bec's brand of magic. There was a language out there that already guided magic, a phrase that would produce a certain result regardless of intent. Ranma had heard only bits of this type, things like most of the phrases were a gathering of magic and only a few parts the actual spell, but it wasn't something that could be translated to where one could see the difference.

"Mercury, point to your planet," Ranma began. The girl gave a start at being singled out, though her 'academic eagerness' for learning magic seemed to overcome her earlier displeasure of being bodily taken here. "You're a Senshi. You should be able to feel where your planet is at all times. Go ahead, point to it."

After a hesitant moment, the blue haired girl pointed up, somewhere near the sun. "It's there."

Ranma nodded without following her finger. "Venus, you too. All of you, point to your planets." They all did, leading to an odd tableau as they were all pointing in random directions, some of them straight down into the ground for the planets beyond.

This would be the hardest part for them, Ranma knew. "Good. Now, I want you to focus on those planets you are pointing at. Whatever sense it is that tells you where they are, use it to feel your planet. Familiarize yourself with it, study it. Look for its power. When you find something that feels like an endless sea of energy, you've about found it."

The girls' eyes all began to glaze, stare off into nothing as they concentrated. Senshi Mercury had even closed her eyes to focus, while Senshi Jupiter looked westward towards her unseen planet as if it would help. Ranma knew it would take them some time, so he was planning on stepping back and talking with some of the others in the meantime. Setsuna, however, stopped him.

"I feel it," she said, not long after they began. Her red eyes focused back on him, and her lips turned into a satisfied smile.

Ranma should have known she would accomplish it so quick. She wasn't new at this like the other girls were. She would have found Pluto's magic already as part of her Senshi training, years ago. He nodded to her, acknowledging it, though he would wait for the others before continuing his lesson.

After they all found their planets' magic, he would teach them how to draw from it. That was their right as Senshi, to have access to it. He would get them to take a small amount to start with and put it inside themselves, get them to understand the limits to how much the body could hold at once and what continued exposure eventually started to do to them.

Next would be learning how to release that magic, either back to the planet or outside themselves. That would start their training with raw magic, maybe shaping them into little orbs and make a little game like a snowball fight out of it. That seemed a decent way to get them used to drawing magic and expelling it.

Then would come the fire. Releasing the magic as flames, no longer raw. He would teach them how to use intent to render the flames harmless to themselves, while still a real fire for others. That was the part things could get dangerous, if the girls messed something up and ended with severe burns. He needed to keep the magic they were handling small, but eventually they would work their way up into real sized attacks.

And so began Ranma's training in magic for the Sailor Scouts.

XxX

"Good!" Ranma shouted, using his magic to extinguish the torrent of flame coming at him. Senshi Venus was the caster, the girl panting and sweating but determined.

Ranma spun in place and held up his left hand. He did the same to the inferno aimed at his back, expelling the flames all the way to their source at Senshi Neptune's palm. The aquamarine haired girl had thrown herself into the training with abandon, likely to distract herself from the temporary loss of her lover.

Drawing more magic in quick handfuls from Nemesis's ruins, Ranma turned again to stop the flames coming from either side of him – a decently coordinated attack done by Mercury and Mars. His sense for magic that was out told him of something starting above him, and Ranma looked up to see a sudden ball of flame descending upon his head.

That would have been Pluto, he knew for sure. The woman always timed herself for opportunity, and only she had enough skill currently to cast fireballs at a distance.

Ranma grinned in the thrill of this fight, the searing heat of the air around him not affecting him much. Nemesisian temperature tolerance worked well for heat and cold. A thought canceled Setsuna's flame and the one Hotaru had sent following.

With a final burst of magic, Ranma slammed the base of his scythe in the ground and sent a pulse of magic out of him, canceling all the fire in the area. "ENOUGH!"

The girls all stopped, little wisps of smoke leaving their palms. Not a one of them didn't look exhausted, and a few had grown pale in the face – a physical sign of overexposure to the magic. Setsuna of course was least affected, though she was panting and leaning against her Garnet Rod.

Ranma smiled at them, nodding. They had all done well this day. Albeit, they had started at nine in the morning and the sun was beginning to set now. Regardless, they had made much progress, especially for a single day. There hadn't been any accidents either, save for a small burn along Venus's palm in the beginning due to a mistake.

He told the girls as much, congratulating them. He gave a hard-eyed warning against practicing further on their own, getting the moon cats to promise to watch over their charges, and then dismissed them to go back home. He knew they would be eating ungainly amounts, the lunches they had brought not nearly enough for how much energy they spent that day.

"Mars, Jupiter, both of you stay here for a few moments," Ranma called out as the now untransformed Senshi began making their weary way back to their homes. The two girls paused, glancing at each other, then returned over to him.

Setsuna appeared to be waiting for him, standing near the construction cite's exit with her arms crossed and watching him after she exchanged partings with Crystal. Bec had left as well, leaving the Urgoks less tense as they also waited for him. Yuka had returned her glamor and disappeared somewhere.

The moment the girls stopped before him, Ranma heard the distinct sound of swooping wings before there were three landings behind him. He smiled slightly.

"All that fire you were tossing around, I have half a mind to think you are preparing to kill me again," a young voice remarked, amused.

Ranma could see the two Senshi's reactions to the arrivals, eyes wide and awed. That was only for a moment before Rei turned suspicious, but Ranma didn't let her take them as threats.

"I was wondering how long you were going to stand there watching, Saffron," Ranma said finally, beginning to turn. He could feel three people: Saffron, Kiima, and one other he didn't know. "And how long it would take you to come find me, now that I'm back."

The last person was without wings, but Ranma had spent enough time on Jupiter to recognize the different ki pattern to her. The girl had orange hair, stylized similar to the Amazons, with green eyes that seemed radiant in the remaining light. A fairly beautiful woman too, though there was a certain cast to her eyes that Ranma had seen in those that had lived deceptively long – the hard gaze of someone who had lived too long and seen too much. Setsuna's eyes showed that, sometimes.

That girl smiled when she saw Makoto, and the gesture was genuine. It reached all the way to her hard eyes, dispelling the edge as tears formed. "Ayame-sama, you really are back..." She fell to her knee and bowed her head, a tear falling, then brought an arm across her chest in an age-old salute.

The brown haired girl was obviously embarrassed by that and didn't know what to do. Saffron waved at the kneeling girl in annoyance. "Stand up, Feyri. She doesn't have all her memories back yet." He was in his young body, and the Phoenix king turned a polite bow towards Rei. "My name is Saffron, and the silver haired one Kiima. We are former subjects to your past self, when you went by the name of Ame-sama."

"Wh-what?" Rei asked, looking just as surprised as her friend. She pointed at the winged beings. "You're from Mars?"

"We are the last of the Moon Kingdom," Feyri nodded. "Myself and Saffron are the last former citizens, though there are Jovian and Martian descendants where we hail from. Kiima is the last immediate descendant of former citizens."

By then, Setsuna had reached them. "The survivors who had settled in the Bayankala Mountain Range," she noted. "What brings you here?"

Feyri shrugged a shoulder. "A matriarch of my people recited Ranma's story to us and mentioned the fight ahead of him and the Senshi. The recital implied Queen Metaria's return. For 3,000 years I have hidden myself in that valley, never exposing myself to any true danger, subtly guiding the descendants of my people as if that were some worthy task. I feel it is finally time for me to do something truly worthy, to help fight back, and Saffron came with me."

"I got a question," Ranma mentioned. "A couple, actually. First, how did you all survive the extermination? Did any of the other planets manage the same? Nemesisians?"

Nemesis herself answered that before the others could. "You are the last of my people, dearest Avatar. I can feel as much."

Feyri shook her head. "Not that we encountered. The circumstances of our escape were luck. Two others and I were guarding the Gate to the tunnels when Ayame-sama herself came running. She screamed of evacuation. We sent the message along our communication lines, but the gas began even as we on the outside were reaching the vessels. It only took moments for our planet to die, while we barely made it to the airlock of the shuttle."

Saffron shrugged a shoulder. "They tried to purge Mars with fire. I may have been replaced as the Senshi's apprentice, but I still had my Kinjakan and Gekkaja. I protected everyone I could, but in the end I could only get no more than a dozen to a shuttle."

Ranma nodded. "And the second question, what was with Evil Lord Saffron when we met last month? And what was with the lack of Martian when I was there?"

The kid had the decency to blush as he coughed into a hand. "Try Spoiled Child Saffron. As with all my rebirths, I would not regain my memories of the Moon Kingdom and my former lives until I reached the age of twenty. The reason I have them now is the changes you brought the past; it caused the memories to come early. Kiima herself knows little of her heritage, only what we've were able to tell her, and among us, she is the last to know such things."

Memories when twenty... Wait a second, rebirths? I forgot! Ranma's eyes met Setsuna's. "We need to speak with Crystal about the spell she had used to send the Senshi and the royal court forward to the future to live new lives. The immortalizing curse she placed on the Senshi..."

Apparently before Ranma arrived, Hotaru had used her suicide Senshi ability. The Silence included her in its destruction, just like Ranma had torn Saffron to pieces with the Hiryu Shoten Ha, and yet in the end, both were babies. The ability to be immediately reborn after death sounded impossible, yet... Crystal had mentioned it, had planned on placing the curse on him so he too could fight Metaria in the future, yet he had rebounded it back to her so she herself lived the backlash of the spell.

And it was a curse. To live forever was always ambiguous, but one could never step down from their duty as a Senshi, not until death. With that curse, they were locked into that duty until the end of time and beyond. And as Crystal had informed him, the only way to break the curse was to destroy the Ginzuisho itself, that which was powerful enough to cast it in the first place.

"So are you saying I had wings, back in the Moon Kingdom?" Rei asked curiously, eying the Phoenix people.

Ranma smiled slightly. Rei's past self, Ame, had been a close friend of his when he was younger. She had been much older than him of course, had the appropriate haughtiness of a queen, was a little biased towards men, but she had been his nee-san for two years, and student for another two. And yes, she did have wings. "Yes, you-" Ranma stopped suddenly, more words from Crystal coming back to him.

Those that died were to be sent forward, to when Metaria was breaking free again. They would be born to new parents, and their bodies would be the form of those native to that planet. If he had been among those sent, however, he needn't have worried about his strength because he would always have his Nemesisian form when he transformed back into a Senshi. If he had still been alive at the time, then he would only bear the immediate rebirths, always Nemesisian.

Ranma had used that information to puzzle out Hotaru's weakness. Under the same logic... "Mars, you still have the wings. They are just pulled inside."

The girl blinked at him, but Ranma grew excited. "Transform into your Senshi form."

Rei seemed uncertain, but she did so, standing before them as Senshi Mars. Saffron smiled proudly at her, tapping his arm across his chest in the old salute.

Ranma walked behind her and checked the fuku. He didn't see any slits for the wings, but that didn't mean they weren't there. He felt along the fabric around the shoulder blades, and with a surge of triumph, he found a seamless cut in the material, practically invisible until he pulled it apart. The cut was in the perfect shape for her wings.

He looked up to Setsuna, who was still transformed as Senshi Pluto. "Hey, Setsuna, do the fuku have bras underneath?"

The woman arched an eyebrow at him. "Why don't you just check instead of asking?"

"Is that an invitation?" Ranma quipped. Perhaps Nemesis was beginning to rub off on him.

Setsuna gave him a blank stare. "...You know what I meant."

He did know – check his cursed form's fuku – yet he only grinned lopsidedly. Setsuna sighed. "They don't."

"Damn, the hard way then." He activated his curse, turning himself into a girl, and turned Saffron around so the boy was facing away from them. She turned back to Rei. "Take off your top. Since we're both girls, it should be fine."

Both Rei and Makoto stared at her, gobsmacked. Setsuna laughed quietly behind a hand at Ranma. "Your tact in this department is astonishing as always, Ranma."

The redhead shrugged a shoulder. "Well, she ain't got nothing I don't, so it should be fine. Besides, I only need to see her back, nothing to get embarrassed about."

There was the usual flurry of things, explanations and the like, before they moved to a bit more private area of the construction cite and Rei consented to the examination for her wings. Ranma was surprised at their reaction to her transformation, though. As usual the Starlights had been brought up, but for the first time it was curiosity, not fear-induced shouting and random attacks.

Ranma still had never been given the story as to what the Starlights had done during the Moon Kingdom to provoke that reaction, either.

Mars had been one of the planets Ranma studied on while a Senshi apprentice, and Martian physiology had been one of the subjects he had needed to learn. However, while he knew that the ability to pull the wings inside involved ki – not an anatomical distinction – he didn't know the specifics.

Ranma studied Rei's back, her fuku pulled down to her waist. She didn't see any sign of the wings. Even feeling along the skin like she had the cloth didn't betray their presence.

"You almost done yet?" Rei asked, a blush on her cheeks.

Ranma shook her head. "Feyri, come take a look at this." The aged Jovian approached. Ranma drew two crescents on either of Rei's shoulder blades with a finger. "I can feel a small buildup of ki along both of those, but I have no idea how to get those wings out. I figure you Amazons know more about this than me, and I'd rather we not have to bring in Saffron to get her wings out."

Mentioning that, the priestess's blush deepened, and she shook her head fiercely.

Feyri hummed as she also examined the spots Ranma pointed out. The woman's eyes turned to her after a moment. "The boundaries between planets was strict, as you know. We know next to nothing of the Martians and their wings. I can sever the ki there, but that's along the hope that the ki is only holding them in."

Ranma turned to Kiima. "Are you sure you don't know this trick in hiding your wings?"

The captain gave her a level stare. "If I did, do you think I would need to use Jusenkyo to disguise myself?"

Ranma grunted, then left the uncompleted shack to the outside, where Saffron waited with the Urgoks. "Hey, the ki buildup where the wings are supposed to be, are there any problems in severing that?"

The boy shrugged. "It might work. It also might sever her wing. Ask if the girl knows how to channel ki herself. Get her to channel ki into the area if she can. She doesn't have to do anything specific, there's only one thing that can happen if she does."

Ranma nodded and ducked back in. "Hey, Mars, you know how to channel ki?" To her surprise, the girl nodded. Ki manipulation wasn't too common on Earth, as she remembered. "Channel some to your shoulder blades, were we found that buildup."

Ranma felt her do so, and suddenly Feyri had to jump back as the left wing sprouted forth. It was a brown hawk wing, as Ranma remembered. She smiled as Rei turned towards the sudden wing, shock on her face. There was another movement of ki inside her, and then the right wing burst out like the first.

Rei jumped to her feet, wings going with her. Her eyes were wide as she craned her neck in trying to look at them, watching them flap weakly and sporadically. The girl nearly squealed at the sight of them, turning a wide grin towards Makoto.

"I have wings!" she shouted, excited.

Ranma coughed politely. "Might want to fix your fuku before you run outside like that."

The girl paused, arms still uplifted in her excitement. She looked down at her bared chest, blush coming to her cheeks again. She eeped and spun, crossing an arm over her chest.

XxX

The last founder of the Amazons, Feyri, mentioned that she had a residence ready for her, Saffron, and Kiima. Why did that unsettle me more than her presence did? The Jovian people could be trusted some, but Amazons...

Saffron would be straightforward. That's the kind of person he is. Feyri would be spinning nets around, likely trying to get me married into the tribe in the end. The problem is, I don't take well to manipulation anymore.

XxX

The sun had slipped below the horizon finally, bathing Juuban in a dusty twilight, the clouds still reflecting bright oranges, pinks, and purples. After the excitement involving Rei and her re-found wings, Ranma finally left with Setsuna. He had his black bag over his shoulder behind him, inside which Setsuna knew was his scythe, while trailing them was the largest of his Urgoks, the one named Kresh. Setsuna noticed the friendly demon, under disguise, was giving them enough distance for privacy.

Which was just perfect for her intentions this evening.

For the moment, Setsuna allowed her thoughts to turn towards recent developments. In one day, their force had changed drastically. Three new fighters had joined them, one a magic user good enough that Ranma respected her, one the old Martian apprentice Senshi-turned-ambassador with two respectable magic heirlooms, and the last a Jovian gatekeeper associated as one of the three founders of the Amazons.

The most affecting change, however, was the Senshi beginning to learn magic, herself included. After devoting an entire day's worth of time and hands-on attention, they could only manage tossing around unrefined magic and fire, though Setsuna suspected she could do more with what was already given. Still, this would change the Senshi, especially the way they fought.

She could feel distant Pluto, the icy rock an immense reservoir of magic just waiting to be tapped. Once able to command that power, she knew she would be near unbeatable. All the Senshi would be. Between them and their allies – Yuka, the Urgoks, Space Keeper, the newcomers – they were shaping into a force even the encroaching Demonata wouldn't be able to overcome. Why hadn't Ranma taught them this before?

She glanced over at him, seeing the hard face as unreadable as always, his thoughts always outside her ability to gauge. His stormy blue eyes not betraying the thoughts just behind them, yet still so beautiful. He was handsome too, in that confident roguish way of his...

Not yet.

Idly, one hand went over a pocket on her clothing. The letter from her past self. As always, her thoughts were never far from it. Just what was that woman trying to guide her towards? Surely not that Crystal Tokyo, despite Queen Meioh's insistence, yet its purpose was to avoid the destruction that seemingly the other half of the futures showed. There had to be something, something of little likelihood, that it was trying to bring to her attention.

The words of the letter began to play out in her mind again, already memorized from her careful study of it and the many times she reread it:

My dearest Setsuna,

This information I cannot make directly forthright, for reasons you already know, although I shall present it in order of relevance. On your return, you must convince Queen Serenity to allow you visit to Crystal Tokyo. You must heed the Queen of that kingdom, for meditation on her warning will grant what this letter cannot. At the time Ranma decides to destroy the barrier, he must be stopped – the loss of the barrier results in destruction as surely as leaving it in its present state. R-

Ranma's voice interrupted the recital: "I'm surprised. I had thought that after 3,000 years you would have picked up learning magic."

During their silent walk, Ranma had been watching Setsuna, and he found her uncharacteristically quiet. Quiet for him at least. Apparently she had built quite the persona when dealing with the other Senshi.

Setsuna shrugged a shoulder. "Learning was an interest of mine, but bound at the Time Gates, observing honest practitioners to the extent of learning it myself was near impossible. There were also other matters that required my attention."

"Like what?" Ranma asked, genuinely curious as to what Setsuna had done during their time apart – besides the various enemies of the Sailor Scouts.

"Things," Setsuna answered innocently, brandishing a mysterious smile when Ranma turned to her. After a moment of holding it, she laughed and said, "Kingdoms rose and fell, technology began its slow ascent, philosophers and geniuses shared wisdom... I kept track of the present world, which was a task in itself. However, I was wondering why you didn't teach us magic as a part of your training all those years ago."

Wryly, Ranma smiled, having felt this question would be coming. "The things I trained you in I had felt would better counter the Combat Squad. I had no way of knowing they would get some power-up that allowed them to steal magic from the planets. Without that, your Senshi attacks should have been enough to counter whatever spells they sent."

Setsuna studied him for a moment, and Ranma knew she had seen what he tried to hide. "That's not the only reason, is it?"

"Mercury alone committed three assassination attempts, all subtle, while both Uranus and Neptune would have killed me gladly had they been skilled enough to defeat me. The idea of me teaching you all magic, removing my only advantage over you besides simple skill, seemed suicidal."

Setsuna understood. The life of a turncoat was never easy, and trust came hard to find. Instead of saying such, she regarded Ranma with curiosity. "Three attempts? I was only aware of two."

Ranma snorted. "Hot springs, while the Senshi and Queen were all bathing. While none of you could have beaten me single-handedly, Crystal could have smeared me across the floor if she had been offended by my appearance. I believe the law of a male peeping on female nobility was execution."

"Serenity-sama has always been an unusual Queen." Setsuna smiled, nearly blushing again as she remembered the shock and embarrassment of Ranma suddenly flying from the ceiling – naked – into the hot springs, him trying valiantly not to let his eyes stray as he blundered about in his explanation of how he got there. Queen Serenity, merely watching the happenings with amusement and not in the least embarrassed by her nudity.

Ranma also smiled. "Yeah." The woman was always formal, dignified without the usual queenly haughtiness, an expert in court politics, and dangerously powerful – her magical ability only one facet of that power. However, despite those respectable qualities demanded in her place as Queen of the Sol System, Crystal the woman had her quirks, the most surprising of which was her carefully hidden playfulness.

A comfortable silence began to stretch between them. Setsuna felt the time had come. She felt just a moment's flutter of nervousness before she steadied herself.

"Ranma," she began, keeping her eyes on the path before her. However, she did notice him turn to her. She took a breath. "Would you ever consider me romantically?"

Ranma nearly stumbled. "What?" Surprise was obvious in his voice.

Setsuna forced herself to meet his eyes, and she gave a brief laugh. "It's not often the Senshi of Pluto finds herself attracted to someone. We've already been on several dates. I was wondering if you were interested in taking that further."

Ranma hesitated. "I... Setsuna, I'm already in a relationship right now with Nemesis. She told me she didn't care if I had one with someone else too, but..."

Setsuna felt the rejection. I hadn't even considered he might have found someone else already. She shook her head. "No, you're right. If you are with Nemesis, I won't intrude." Nemesis? Setsuna only faintly recalled her, and even then she had assumed the planetary sentience had died with the planet. She was with Ranma?

"Sorry," Ranma mumbled, turning away from Setsuna. The shock of her actually bringing this up was fading, leaving his mind whirling with sudden thoughts. Setsuna was actually interested in him, and he... Dammit, he was with Nemesis. He couldn't deny that he felt something for Setsuna though.

Nemesis had mentioned he could leave her at any time if he found himself wishing for someone else, like Setsuna right now. However, not only did he feel that wouldn't be fair to Nemesis, he couldn't deny his own budding feelings for her. Leaving her just wasn't an option. Both, then? Ranma gave a mental snort at the idea. That was just Nemesis being herself.

Still, he couldn't help but wish Setsuna hadn't rejected his almost offer when he mentioned Nemesis's willingness.

The silence between them for the continuing walk began to stretch, the both of them carefully not quite looking at the other just yet. Finally, Setsuna just blew out a sigh and a small smile found its way to her lips. "We really should be mature enough for this to not turn things awkward between us."

"You're the one getting awkward," Ranma lied.

Setsuna laughed at his childish retort. "We're talking about maturity here, Ranma."

She wasn't really that surprised at his turn down, Setsuna found. The man had had a literal harem of girls offering themselves to him, all willing to share, and he had rejected them all. Sure, she and Ranma were familiar and had grown close, but why had she assumed her chances would be any better than those girls? She wondered how long he and Nemesis had been together now but declined against asking.

Still, she couldn't help but feel that she had just waited too long in asking him, and that was why Nemesis got there first.

Setsuna briefly thought of his other comment, Nemesis's own willingness to share his attentions, but she laughed the idea down. Regardless of Queen Serenity's necessary law allowing polygamy, that was not her thing, and even if it was, she didn't know the being named Nemesis well enough to ever consider joining her in such a relationship.

XxX

"A hell of a day," Ranma sighed, resting on his back with his arms behind his head.

He and Nemesis were in their usual meeting spot on the planet Nemesis, the dream-constructed reality realistic in all five senses. The purple grass was soft beneath him, even with the triple gravity. Nemesis was snuggled under his left arm as he stared up at the light green sky and low clouds. The peculiar smells of a Nemesisian forest wafted as a steady, musky scent in the cool, gentle breeze. The distant sun, noticeably smaller than Earth's, beat a mild warmth down on them.

"Let's see, Bec joined us, Saffron and that girl joined us, the Senshi are actually learning magic, we may or may not have determined what that mystery mage is doing, Mars got her wings back, Xycell is gone with Uranus off to who knows where, and to top it off, Setsuna of all girls admitted to an attraction. I'm half surprised Ryoga didn't break down the walls when we got home and demand a duel," Ranma listed, exasperated.

"Do you wish to talk about it, before we begin?" Nemesis asked, gently tracing a circle on his chest as they lay there.

"Talk about Setsuna?" Ranma assumed, to which Nemesis confirmed. He shook his head. "There ain't nothing to talk about."

"Oh, Ranma..." Nemesis sighed, though she accepted his wish to leave the subject alone. "Let's begin then."

Ranma turned his gaze away from the sky to see the grin forming on her face. He watched as she lifted her hand to snap her fingers, and the whole world shifted suddenly.

They were standing on a massive plateau, the rocky ground a rust red and stretching out for several miles in all directions. While the jagged cliffs of the formation ventured high in the sky, several hundred meters above the ground, there were mountains in the distance that reached higher, nearly gouging the uniquely colored sky. The mountains were colored in life that died the higher the eyes rose, to where they peaked in snowy tips.

It was obvious they were still on Nemesis, though Ranma had never seen this place before. He raised an eyebrow at the woman, now standing a dozen yards away. "Where are we?"

"The Wilderness, near the south eastern borders of it. The land left uncategorized, mainly used to house my various species away from human civilization. Also the land used for wars, be it civil, insurrection, or in defense against an invading planet. An appropriate location for the battle we intend to wage for your training, correct?" Nemesis was smiling, her words soft as if she had been next to him yet carrying the distance. Whether that was an advantage of the dream or just one of her many abilities, Ranma's didn't know.

Ranma nodded at her words, lowering himself into a stance. He was recovering old styles now that his right arm was healed, and he settled low with his left hand extended towards Nemesis, the right behind him with the scythe. He smirked at her, much more confident than he felt. "Let's do it."

To be honest, he had never seen Nemesis fight before. He didn't even know if she did or even could fight, yet she had assured him, teasingly, that she could rise to the challenge. He had no idea what to expect.

As soon as the words left his mouth, an amazing wind kicked up against him. Ranma braced himself against it, eyes remaining on his opponent, watching as her dress danced wildly at the gusts yet the woman remained unaffected. In the distance, storm clouds began gathering behind the snowy peaks of the dark mountains.

The storming weather grew violent, buffeting Ranma and Nemesis both, the latter still showing no sign of it touching her beyond her flying hair and whipping dress. Thunder boomed in the distance as the clouds plowed in their direction, moving unnaturally fast in the winds. In no time, lightning was visible, touching down increasingly closer to them with accompanying roars that grew louder and louder.

Ranma was forced to squint and settled himself lower, the winds picking up dust from the plateau and pressing against him with enough force to unsteady even his weight under Nemesis's own gravity. The black and grey clouds covered the sky, rippling with color as lightning crackled. It was close enough now that there was practically no time between the flash and thunder, and the sound was deep enough to be felt through Ranma's entire body.

Amidst the chaos of the storm, the howling winds began cycling around Nemesis, and slowly the woman ascend from the ground. As she did, tremors shook the very planet, all of nature bending to the very whims of the powerful being towering over Ranma. She was the goddess where he was the lowly mortal.

Let it be said Nemesis enjoyed theatrics and dramatic appearances as much as Ranma did.

Even in the dream, Ranma could feel the magic of Nemesis beneath him, the entire planet an endless source. He drew from it, slowly reaching into it and gently cupping handfuls like water from a lake. He used the task to keep calm, focusing himself away from all the distractions Nemesis was evoking.

He thrust his intent into the air around him, chilling the area to below freezing, and shouted, "FUBUKI SOUSOU!" The mix of ki, negative ki, and magic happened near instantly, and he thrust the misting sphere at the levitating woman.

Nemesis lowered both hands towards him, palms out, and suddenly the cyclone of air around her twisted down her arms. Twin tornadoes, visible by the dust they sucked in, rushed towards the attack. Just as they made contact, the sky itself cried its fury and an impossible conjoining of six bolts of lightning impacted the orb from above.

Ranma watched, nearly awed, as his most powerful attack slowly tried to churn its way through the opposition, grinding its steady way against the winds, yet failed in overcoming it all and allowed itself to be grounded by the lightning. It exploded into the red rock of the plateau, whipping a wave of icy concussion at Ranma and Nemesis both.

With an idle thought, Ranma cleared the frost from his form. He was suddenly nervous as to how this fight might go.

The skies split and spilled its rain, fat droplets hammering down in the gravity and fierce winds. Like all of Nemesis's natural waters, the rain was warm, leaving Ranma in his birth form yet soaking him nearly instantly. The pelting drops began obscuring Ranma's vision, not that he could miss the swirling display of power surrounding Nemesis.

There was a shift in that center of power, a beat of stillness, before Nemesis leaned herself forward and rocketed at an insane speed towards Ranma. The distance had originally been short between them and had expanded since the start of the fight, but that mattered little as Nemesis reached him in the blink of an eye.

Ranma blocked her simple punch, only to be thrown back due to the power behind her momentum. He was in his Senshi form, meaning he had the bracers of Nemesis's strongest metal – black copper – yet still his arm burned and ached from the impact. He stopped his impromptu flight by dragging his feet and a hand along the ground, and looking back for his opponent, he found Nemesis already upon him again.

Shit! Blocking was out of the question, so he instead deflected the blow and countered with his own. Nemesis had an amused grin on her face as she easily rolled her shoulder away and grabbed a hold of his arm. Knowing the dangers of that, Ranma quickly tried freeing his arm, snapping it back towards him and bringing his leg up for a kick.

Nemesis was fluid as she used his tug to move herself towards him, sidestepping his body and kick to get behind him, still with his arm and locking it at its extremities. Instead of breaking it, as Ranma feared she might, Nemesis only laughed – somehow audible over the winds, rain, and thunder – and she leaned into him to kiss his cheek.

Ranma's trick to escape that specific hold froze as he realized what she was doing. It only lasted for an instant, though. Something struck the back plate of his armor, and his body tumbled forward over the rocky ground. Ranma felt dazed as he halted the roll, but the moment he started gathering his thoughts again, he saw Nemesis thrust her arm down from over her head.

There was a blinding flash and pain – lots of pain. Ranma felt his body convulse once before it all ended. It felt like a sledgehammer had just hit his shoulder, but looking only showed a strange black smoking mark on his white bodysuit. Did Nemesis just call down a lightning bolt on me?

His danger sense flared, the trusted instinct, and Ranma threw himself to the side. Wild eyes saw several more bolts of lightning strike where he had been standing, and he turned to see an evil grin on Nemesis's face. Another cyclone of wind began reaching for him, this time collecting mud from the plateau and water, while she lowered her other hand at him in the same gesture for the earlier lightning.

Ranma used the magic inside him to quickly divert the lightning from above him, while at the same time he summoned a gale of wind, so much weaker than her hurricane, to attempt to steady the air around him.

Nemesis had literally observed the training of every warrior on a planet that raised only warriors for the last several hundred years. There was no way Ranma could beat her with just his martial arts or weapons training, not to mention the three ESG held him back.

Vines and fire. Ranma tried snaring her legs and pulling the woman from her whirlwind back to the ground, but as she easily avoided them – as he expected – Ranma called forth torrents of fire, even knowing about the rains. He watched, dismayed, as Nemesis only laughed and condensed the rain around them to extinguish them flames.

Nemesis vanished suddenly, and without any warning Ranma felt a presence on his back. He heard Nemesis whisper in his ear, "Let me show you real heat."

He whipped his body around, scythe arching in a vicious decapitating blow to where he knew her head to be. He missed, seeing no one there. Nemesis suddenly sprang up from a crouch below his eye line, much too close for him to retaliate against, and she wrapped her arms around him and kissed him again.

The woman is insane! The thought was verified when Nemesis suddenly shoved Ranma back, sending him flying again. Ranma watched, dull eyed, as she lowered a hand, closed a fist, and thrust it back up. There was a rumbling beneath him then. Ranma panicked and immediately darted away from his spot, looking back just in time to see an eruption of lava and rock spew forth violently, hissing steam as it came in contact with the rains.

Ranma's eye twitched at the miniature volcano Nemesis created. Another bolt of lightning touched down on him, and his eye twitched again.

Some time later, things had not improved much for Ranma. He laid flat on his back, wind knocked out of him, half charred, half cooked internally, half drowned, half frozen, nerves misfiring from too many electrical discharges, exhausted beyond redemption, and most certainly unable to move no matter how hard he tried to will his body. Nemesis sat atop him, straddling his stomach and restraining his arms, and her still perfectly maintained green hair was tossed over to one side as she bent to kiss a spot on his neck.

Around them, the plateau could no longer be labeled as such. Craters, an active volcano, a geyser-fed river, a new mountain, an odd pumpkin patch, and the fact that more than three quarters of the landmass was missing made it something else entirely.

Ranma let out a wet cough, unsurprised to see smoke leaving his lungs – a paradox he didn't want to explain to himself – and groaned, "You are by far the universe's most abusive girlfriend. Ever."

Nemesis lifted her head to beam down at him, and just as she did, the clouds behind her dissipated and alighted with golds and whites as the sun broke through them, constructing a sudden breathtaking scene that framed Nemesis's already impressive beauty. There was stillness in that moment too: no rain, winds, or thunder. Like that, golden rays of sunlight behind her causing her hair to nearly glow, she said, "You know I love you even so."

It was cheating being able to so perfectly manipulate your surroundings in such a way, Ranma knew, but the effect Nemesis could produce in doing so was simply so amazing. Adrenaline still beat through him from the fight, and the sudden peace and beauty had him react on impulse. He leaned up and captured her lips, and Nemesis lowered herself to him gladly.

"I can come back another time, if you wish," a voice mentioned from the side.

Nemesis and Ranma broke apart immediately, both turning towards the voice with wide eyes. No one was supposed to be here except them, unless they had constructed such a person as dreams allowed.

It was a woman, kneeling on a patch of green grass next to the new river. Her hair was a reddish brown and curled slightly, eyes a penetrative lead grey. Her features were sharp, though her expression was amused as she peered over at them, enhanced by her rosy cheeks. Her sky blue dress was rather modest compared to Nemesis's sundress, with a high neckline and the bottom easily reaching her ankles. The woman was beautiful, though expressed in the manner of a reserved mother – a bearing Nemesis herself took at times.

"Terra..." Nemesis breathed out in shock, then quickly gathered herself and removed herself from Ranma.

Ranma himself took a few moment's breather to gather his strength before also rising to a sit, facing the new woman. So that was Terra, the only other planet that had given itself sentience at the time of the Moon Kingdom's fall.

Terra gave them both a smile as a cup of steaming tea appeared in her hands, and she took a moment to take a sip. "Now, I'm sure you have questions for me, Nemesis. I certainly do for you... and you, Ranma Uzuki-Saotome."

Ranma glanced over at Nemesis and saw she had changed herself, foregoing playfulness for maturity. It was a drastic personality shift but one she made often, from Nemesis the woman to Nemesis the planet. She was kneeled next to him, her smile demure yet radiant. It wouldn't be right to say she seemed to age in the change, like a youthful girl into a full woman, yet her mere presence gave it the appearance of such.

The scenery around them changed too, from the devastated battleground to... something odd. On Ranma's side, with Nemesis, was what he recognized from the planet. They were seated on the purple grass, the squat trees with dark green bark and autumn red leaves, the familiar scents and feel of Nemesis, a light green sky above like Nemesis's own dress. Across from them, however, on Terra's side was strictly earthen terrain: lively green grass, redwood trees, blue sky, everything appearing brighter as Earth was closer to the sun.

Nemesis smiled and held out her hands. "Terra, it's been so long."

Terra reached up and clasped hands with her, smiling back. "It has, Nemesis. To be honest, I had assumed you dead, all those years ago. Which brings me to my first question, on how you survived." She still had her tea, taking a sip after the question and watching Nemesis.

Nemesis's smile dimmed slightly at the reminder of the loss of her true body, the entire planet and all its life formerly under her care. "My avatar preserved my being inside the scythe he holds out in the waking world, a transfer of my planetary heart crystal before the eradication of my body from the Eris Ascension."

Terra raised an eyebrow as she stopped there, clearing expecting Nemesis to have explained more. "...I see. As for why I could no longer detect you for the last 3,000 years...?"

"An arrangement of the forces outside our control-" She said 'our' in a way Ranma could tell referred beings like her and Terra. "-led to an absence of existence for those years."

Terra remained calm, taking another sip of tea before saying, "A temporary absence of existence. A violation of those forces, along the Laws of Space and Time I believe. The Keepers were involved, then. Your reluctance is understandable."

There was a silence as the two women regarded each other. Ranma couldn't tell if there was a tension between them or not. If Nemesis was any example, they weren't 'normal' women. As if said normal women weren't confusing enough to understand at times.

Finally, Nemesis said, "It is the barrier surrounding the planet that has depleted your core of magic, isn't it? If the Keeper of Space was accurate in assessing its origin as magical, that would mean it takes magic to maintain. A barrier of that size would take an extraordinary amount as upkeep, well beyond human limitations even for an experienced avatar. For you to be this weak, it must have existed for millennia now."

A smile formed on Terra's lips, slightly amused. "You are correct. The barrier is not of my making and in fact has puzzled me over the years ever since its creation. However, I cannot deny that it has saved me several times, even though it is killing me."

"Explain."

"It was during the fall of the Moon Kingdom. Despite your assumptions, not every demon assaulted you nor did every Demon Master. Your sacrifice to destroy them all was, admittedly, in vain. However, the peculiarities begin there. The master that appeared on me, he was at the forefront of the armies, and he arrived alone. The bastard of a demon violated me of course, but he used my magic – as well as much from the cosmos – to construct this barrier just before the armies reached me.

"I assumed that he meant to be the sole reaper of sorrow and destruction on me, but he only left soon after, leaving my children alive. The same master has reappeared several times since then, though he has yet to violate my core a second time and his interactions with my children are remarkably limited, whether he slays them or helps them. Peculiar indeed."

Nemesis frowned. "An odd appearance, yet the nature of a Demon Master cannot be denied anymore than a human's. His motives are ulterior to what he has presented. Regardless of him, however, this barrier on you needs to be removed, Terra. Have you any ideas in how my Avatar and I can manage it?"

"A rather straightforward master, actually. I believe his preservation of the human race is to continue feeding on their sufferings and sorrows, and his barrier makes my body a private playground for him, unable to be touched by other masters. In a sense, I have been claimed his property, disgusting though the concept may be. As for removing that collar he has placed on me, you are on your own. I have not the strength for it, and neither does the remains of your body," Terra answered simply.

Ranma made a sound, bringing himself into the conversation. "I guess that makes this guy guaranteed separate from Big Bad, since he wouldn't need others to open those portals to reach here. While I wouldn't touch an alliance with this guy with a forty foot stick, maybe we could turn them against each other, getting them to quarrel over possession of Earth – err, no offense, Terra – and then take down the winner while he's weak."

"None taken, young avatar of Nemesis. However, Lord Loss has proven quiet intelligent in matters of manipulation. Attempting to do so would only incite his ire, and many a mortals have been laid low for such before. Believe me when I say those killed for it are the lucky ones."

"What... did you just say his name was?" Ranma asked quietly.

Nemesis seemed startled, turning towards Ranma, while Terra smiled sadly. "Lord Loss, the sentinel of sorrow himself. The only reason your Bec MacConn managed to close that Tunnel was because of Lord Loss's interference, while his presence made her quest all the more miserable for it. He has been a plague on humanity for the last 3,000 years."

"That shouldn't be possible," Ranma muttered, his hand coming up to the tattoo residing over his left shoulder, an ancient rage not his own coloring his thoughts. "Madam Marietta's spell should have left him banished for millennia to come."

Nemesis's hand came to his arm comfortingly. "Look deeper at the issue, Ranma. When imprisoned, you found that Sir Anquish was the strongest Demon Master under Metaria's control. You know that she had several others. It is not improbable that she, for whatever foul reason, released Lord Loss from his banishment. More importantly, we killed Sir Anquish and two others with the Eris Ascension, while Lord Loss went to Earth. Perhaps our Big Bad is an additional Demon Master formerly under her control, hence why he appears to already know you."

"I still don't see the need for finding out his identity, unless it helps us turn him and Lord Loss against each other," Ranma remarked, mind still focused on the fact that Lord Loss was already free.

"It very well might help that, if they parted disagreeably with the fall of Metaria. However, the real importance I see is that with his identity, we will be able to better track down Big Bad's lair – a task already inherently difficult," Nemesis reasoned.

Terra cleared her throat. "I have answered your summon, Nemesis, and I have answered your questions, if befuddling your grasp of what is threatening Tokyo's Juuban presently. Before I leave, I have one final question for you, Ranma. How is it you went from one of my sons to a hybrid of mine and Nemesis?"

It took Ranma a moment to focus back on her. "The scroll Happosai used on me, it sent me into the past where I replaced a baby of a woman in childbirth. My second mother was Nemesisian."

Terra nodded, rising to a stand and brushing off her dress. "Interesting, however, is how your features remained much the same as those I gave you, while still born of Nemesis."

Nemesis gave the standing Terra a look. "I still have words for you, Terra. Wars, hundreds of divided governments, no true central power, poverty, famines, rampart disease... You need to take an avatar, someone to unite your many disparate peoples and has the absolute authority to end injustices."

Terra's steely gaze met Nemesis's hard black eyes for a moment, then turned back to her dusting. "I will take an avatar when I find the right person for the duty."

Nemesis's jaw set. "Terra, I know things about this threat that you do not. This is not the time for a divided planet. Have you perceived the magnitude of what will happen should we fail in stopping Ranma's dubbed 'Big Bad?'"

"I have watched, for thousands of years, as mages have opened those windows into the Demonata Universe and invited destruction for my children. Always, there have been those that band together and stop it. Seeing the same threat on a different face a thousand time dulls my fear, Nemesis. I will consider taking an avatar, but I will not bind myself to someone so haphazardly." The woman turned her lead grey eyes to Ranma for a moment, betraying none of her thoughts, then she turned away from both of them and began to walk away.

Nemesis and Ranma watched her for several steps, seeing her slow to a stop again. Terra flipping her red-brown hair over her shoulder to glance back at Nemesis. "When did you last rain, Nemesis?"

Nemesis's stare faltered momentarily. "The... The day I last had my body."

Terra shook her head. "We are not human, as you well know, but we have designed ourselves off of such. Just because you have no mountains does not mean you cannot erode within. You call my fault and so I call yours. Rain, Nemesis."

There was a breath of wind, and with it Terra vanished. Her side of scenery dispersed abruptly, leaving behind a foggy grey expanse of unfilled dream-reality. It took only a beat for that grey to be replaced by a continuation of Nemesis, erasing any reminder that everything around them was only a construction. It truly did feel like Ranma was back on Nemesis, as real as the illusions she produced in the waking world.

With Terra's parting, Ranma turned to see Nemesis looking uncertain. He had no idea what the woman meant with that last comment, about her raining, but he could tell it held a significance to her. "Hey, you alright?"

"I'm fine, dearest Avatar, merely considering," she said. Nemesis seemed to snap out of it then, turning an amused smile to him. "It appears that your very long day just got longer."

Ranma, still aching and sore from the earlier spar with her, nodded. "She helped clear some things up though. We have the Lord Loss angle we can work at now, who I still can't believe has been free all this time, and we know how to prevent Terra from dying, if not the exact method yet."

"Indeed." Her eyes averted from his then, staring out into the woods surrounding them. "Ranma, about Setsuna... I'm sorry I got in the way. Also, I will actually begin construction of a new body this night."

Ranma sighed, thinking back to Setsuna's rather sudden admission. "It ain't your fault. I told you already: I'm with you, and that was my choice."

It was a strange contrast to his days in Nerima, when several woman were after him yet he only wanted one, and now he was with one and yet he wanted... Did he want more than one? He compared his current relationship with Nemesis to the others, considering if he wanted the same with any of them.

He banished the thought before he got an answer. He was letting himself get too carried away with that poisoning promise of Crystal's law of polygamy, which wasn't even in effect anymore. Of those he cared about and could see himself actually tying the knot with, given different circumstances, Hotaru was much too young and without memories, there was no chance Crystal could form those kind of feelings for him given his unintentional hand in her husband's death, and now Setsuna, he would have been willing yet he was instead with Nemesis.

Yuka also made the list as a girl he cared about deeply, yet he couldn't ever see himself with her romantically not just because of her catlike features, but because she had become a more genuine sister to him than anything else. Exposure to her had quelled the most of his fear of cats, but it was still there. Even a simple kiss on the cheek from her, without the glamor, roused more negative emotion than positive. He just couldn't share that kind of life with her.

"Well, I believe we'll end your own training here for now and let you get at least some real sleep tonight," Nemesis said, breaking him from his thoughts. As he turned back to her, he saw her grow one of the mischievous smiles he never trusted. "Of course, a day like this just wouldn't be complete without one more... bump. I foresee pleasurable dreams in your near future, dearest Avatar."

"No!" Ranma shouted, jumping to his feet as the world already began to fade away. "Nemesis, not right now! Bad time!" With his thoughts on those girls like this, he just knew what kind of 'dream' he'd have if Nemesis forced his mind to...

His lucid thoughts began slipping away, fading along with his concerns. Nemesis laughed wickedly as she vanished. A last desperate bubble of thoughts passed Ranma's mind, I just hope... I don't end up dreaming of all of them... together...

He did not get his wish.

XxX

Thankfully, the following days gave me a bit of a break, at least. Most likely a calm before the next storm with how things tend to go. The Senshi's training went steadily, still no fatal accidents, and the occasional attempted crossing was put down lethally. No news on the mystery mage still, though the Hunters have been on the lookout for him continually while I trained the Senshi.

XxX

"I see," Crystal murmured sympathetically, but she really didn't see. Setsuna had actually admitted her feelings for Ranma and they hadn't gotten together? The attraction between them had seemed so painfully obvious from an outside observer.

"Well, I really couldn't," Ranma continued. "I'm with Nemesis right now, so it just wasn't possible."

Everything clicked into place for Crystal, and she nodded automatically. An image of Nemesis formed in her mind: the sentience of an entire planet, dark green hair and contrasting light green dress, her beauty less "girl next door" and more a wholesome femininity, and a mature personality befitting her position like Crystal herself, yet unlike herself, Nemesis could indulge behaviors her duty might otherwise suggest not.

She could honestly admit to not having expected Ranma and Nemesis getting together, but in retrospect she felt she should have. The closeness between them had been deep, and it was noticeable even despite the very few times she saw them together.

So Setsuna had been cowed by that relationship, allowing her feelings to smother, unrequited, instead of... expanding her horizons, so to speak. Crystal knew her Time Keeper had a rather narrow view of love, not entirely open to new possibilities, and she was willing to suffer for it. This explained why the woman seemed so distant at the last few practices.

Crystal's hand went to Ranma's arm, a simple touch on the wrist, leaving the last of her ice cream for the moment. "You have feelings for her anyways, don't you?"

Ranma grimaced, but he didn't deny it. Crystal had assumed as much. "Doesn't really matter if I do or don't, though. I'm not leaving Nemesis."

Had this been a issue presented before her throne rather than from a friend she regarded as an equal, Crystal would have simply solved the matter by requiring a marriage between all three parties. She was fairly certain she had made such rulings before.

Of course, in her younger days, the idea of sharing Ryu's attention and affections would have invoked furious jealousy, not dissimilar to what she assumed these modern women would. However, she had been married to the man for over a century. Even with the forbidden excitement of their relationship, his overwhelming passion, and the limited contact between them, the fires began to dull with time. Over a century with the same man. Introducing another lover into the equation would have spiced things up nicely.

Crystal felt that Setsuna, a woman even older than herself and undoubtedly facing crushing loneliness for most of her days, would have seen the same benefits of multiple lovers. Narrow-minded, she reminded herself.

The last bite of her ice cream was on her spoon, Crystal realized, and she made sure she savored and relished it entirely as she went through the last of her musings.

Ranma himself was more awkward in matters of the heart than any other she had met. A bad history likely. A remarkable man, but he had his faults. Simply put, he could not be allowed to be the decider in things. Crystal was more than sure that Nemesis finally acquiring courtship was not a matter of choice for the man. If Crystal decided to dirty her hands in this emotional tangle, Ranma couldn't be the instigator.

"Always keep your mind open to other possibilities," Crystal said finally, only a touch forlorn that her sweets were already finished. Ranma didn't get the implication immediately, as she suspected, but the thought would be there to puzzle out later. She changed subjects, "Ranma, if I may inquire... If we had never faced threat of the war from Queen Metaria, or threat from whomever it is now, what do you think you would be doing? We have always been preparing for one thing or another, and the curiosity stuck me that I have never seen you without the burden of duty."

"You mean like besides all the Senshi training and fighting and stuff, right?" Ranma asked, to which Crystal nodded. He turned thoughtful for only a few moments before giving a shrug. "I dunno. Thought about it after I heard Metaria was dead. Best answer I got was try and live normally, while facing all the trouble that'd cause when – not if – it cropped up."

Crystal laughed lightly, and amusement colored her words: "True that you do not seem cut out for the normal life. I-"

"Lord Ranma!" a voice shouted, and they both turned to see Kresh moving towards them, bringing the attention of those in the parlor. The unusual demon stopped at their table, worry recognizable on his human disguise. "Crossings."

Ranma stood from his seat immediately, casting out his senses for magic out through the city. What he felt disturbed him. He turned towards Crystal with the hardness reserved for battle. "Crossings, plural. Not one but three a- four are starting."

He reached down and swung the giant black back containing Nemesis over his shoulder, absently offering a hand to help Crystal rise as he continued speaking, "I need you to call together everyone, including Bec, and get them to meet at the mall. That will be the last we try to stop, and I want us ready if they actually break through before I get there."

After helping Crystal stand, Ranma whipped towards Kresh and began opening his bag. "Take my scythe. You can stop the one at the school while I stop the other two."

His fingers enclosed around the wood of the scythe, feeling the warm grooves of the silvery veins, and Nemesis's voice filled his head urgently, "Ranma, please, don't give me to the demon!" He paused, blinking. "Please, Avatar, if you have any compassion, don't allow contact between myself and Kresh." Nemesis was begging him. She never did that.

Of course, planetary beings had some bad blood with demons. Touching their core was akin to rape, and demons did so even unintentionally. Overwhelmed with demons, dark and disgusting presences sweeping into her to steal her magic, the last time Nemesis had begged was for him to use the Eris Ascension to kill them all at the cost of her life.

Cursing the time it would cost him, Ranma nodded once. "I won't." He let go and zipped the bag back up. His eyes found Crystal again, dead serious. "Crystal, get everyone to the park instead of the mall. There's five now."

XxX

Makoto, currently Sailor Jupiter, was excited. They finally had a fight on their hands, where she could test her new abilities. Ranma-sensei (he insisted that they call him that) had demanded they not practice magic without his supervision, and she obeyed his rule. Mostly. Just little things at her house, nothing dangerous. Maybe a little fire had caught, but she put it out in time.

Now, though, she got to use them against a truly evil foe, and she had permission to not hold back.

She met with the other Inners at Rei's shrine, and the group of them continued their run all the way over to Juuban's most well-known park. It was where they had first encountered Ranma fighting that gnome that turned into a giant. The Outers joined them on the way, minus Haruka who was apparently still gone. They were all transformed already.

Queen Serenity herself was leading the charge, silver hair flying behind her as her long legs ate ground at an impressive pace. The Queen certainly handled things differently than Usagi had. Less complaining, more serious, and generally a better leader. Makoto would have done much to have her old friend back anyways.

Finally Ranma-sensei himself, who she swore bore a resemblance to her old senpai (not missing the irony), appeared with his demons. All of them, she found. The two-tailed catgirl, the stocky one named Kresh, and both Hunters. He was currently transformed, white bodysuit and black plates, and the ease of his movements had her check his hand to see the simple black band was gone.

That brought her mind to Hotaru, and she saw Sailor Saturn running apace with them despite the double-gravity ring she wore. Makoto smiled at the girl, nodding her head once in acknowledgment. Still, the girl was obviously the most tired of all of them, already panting.

Ranma-sensei leaned towards Queen Serenity and said, "Someone else stopped two of them while I handled the others. I would have gotten the last on my own, but you guys were on the way and..."

"It's too late," Kresh finished grimly, stout limbs moving awkwardly in his run.

Queen Serenity nodded as she ran. "The others are on the way as well, intending to meet us there."

"What do you think they are taking about?" Mars asked Makoto.

"Seems like there was more than one bad guy," Makoto reasoned, and Mars nodded as if thinking the same. Oh, she hadn't forgotten the priestess's wings either, even if they weren't out currently. She, like the others, had been completely surprised when Rei had come swooping in – admittedly ungracefully – with her new wings. It wasn't even anything like Sailor Moon's, supposedly.

They reached the edges of the park. It was a moonless night, leaving only the orange glow of the manufactured lights. It bathed the grass and plants in an unearthly color, elongating shadows into deep black voids where blocked from the few poles. No person was out for a late stroll, thankfully. Other than that, the park looked much the same.

Of course, there was the sea-green patch of light hovering over near the fountain. And there were the many dark, twisted shapes of varying size spread all around that light, and there were more dark shapes emerging from the portal every second. Not to mention the slight overabundance of fangs, claws, spines, bones, slime, and the like from the many shapes, all of them with the motions of living creatures.

As soon as the first demon cause sight of them, there was a loud and challenging roar. Makoto's heart lurched into a sudden frenzy, adrenaline deciding right there that flight was not an option and fight most certainly was. There had to be hundreds of demons here, already. The snarling monsters began clamoring their way towards their group.

Abruptly, Ranma-sensei dashed off to the side, his demons following. Queen Serenity ignored him, lifting her Ginzuisho as they came increasingly closer, and shouted, "No mercy! For the Moon!"

Heh, certainly a change from the Princess.

Makoto held her breath for a hanging second, time appearing to slow as her vision unfocused, all of her attention going into the sense that pointed out her planet deep in the reaches of space. She reached towards it with what felt like an invisible hand, finding the endless well of power stored away, and she brought handfuls of it back to herself, bringing it inside and filling herself with a tingling power that seemed to quiver bliss inside.

All that happened between one step and the next. The sudden intake of breath at the wondrous feeling of magic inside her was echoed by several of the other Sailor Scouts, and she knew they had done the same as her. There was only a dozen or so yards until contact with the demons. Makoto began gathering her intent, focusing her mind in strict detail exactly what she wanted her magic to do.

Before she could unleash the spell, the new Sailor Moon struck first. A vortex of what Makoto recognized as raw magic suddenly exploded out of the Ginzuisho, a twisting storm of more magic than she had ever seen in one place. It didn't just slam into the demons in the front, like Makoto expected from raw magic, but the very nature of the attack tore them to pieces. It ground grass, earth, sidewalk, and demon alike in its path – wide though it was – and continued onward until dozens of demons were nothing more than gory and rather pungent bits.

Makoto tried not to retch as she stared in awe at the power her Queen had just wielded, covering her nose with a hand. Those around her had slowed their runs too, all staring at the destruction. However, there were still demons, and Queen Serenity's attack had barely scratch the surface of their numbers. Still more shapes dropped from the portal at the fountain.

Excitement still raged within her, though diminished knowing she could never do what Sailor Moon had just done, yet even that excitement couldn't quell the sudden fear at the numbers they were facing. It was like an invasion or something!

Just then, Ranma-sensei slammed into the demonic horde's flank on the left side. Like the Queen, he opened with magic, and suddenly there was light equivalent to day as fire erupted among the demons. Eruptions of earth and lightning came simultaneously from the right, and she could vaguely make out the shapes of the "good guy" demons.

Makoto felt herself grin. Over the roaring sounds of attacks and demons, she shouted, "Let's kick some ass!"

She directed the magic again, concentrating, and she jabbed her hand forward, fingers out. Forks of blue lightning shot from each of her fingers, an idea from a movie she saw combined with her own Senshi affinity, and the still approaching demons gave howls as they were hit. The lightning was weaker than her actual Senshi attack, Makoto knew, but there was a satisfaction in it.

She could do magic.

The others followed her lead. They weren't terrible diverse, all things considered. Fire consumed the demons, mostly. Torrents of flame, fireballs, Mercury managed a concentrated beam of heat... The only reason Makoto had been allowed lightning was because she had gotten Ranma's approval and supervision as she worked with it. However, that wasn't to say the others had learned nothing after the first day.

They had mostly gone over the basic elements. They had learned that creating water on the fly was much more difficult than fire. However, thanks to her own Senshi attack, such wasn't an issue for Mercury. After her first attack, the blue haired girl continued with the dirty work by shouting, "MERCURY AQUA RHAPSODY!"

A huge amount of water appeared with it, but instead of slamming into any enemies, it just remained hovering there. There was a brief moment as she concentrated, and suddenly the water shifted and split, then froze. Just like that, there were hundreds of frozen spears awaiting command, and command she did, impaling rows of demons.

There were similar workings from others, variations of things with the relatively limited amount of training Ranma-sensei had given, though many still remained comfortable with sending blasts of fire. Makoto herself forced a steady discharge of lightning into one arachnid-like demon, watching its hide cook until it flopped to the ground, legs curling up above it.

She stretched her meager limits, still wanting to try out magic before resorting to her less exhausting Senshi attacks. Simple and, err, hollow vines grew from the ground and bound from demons, but the weak bindings proved useless on all but one tiny thing that began gnawing frantically on its snare until it was free. More magic from Jupiter, and fire leapt from her hands, roasting another couple of demons. A gust of wind toppled one demon into another, sending them in a heap before Pluto used a blade of air to cut them in half.

Makoto shot a look at the green haired Senshi, slightly jealous.

However, turning her attention away from the butchery gave her another scope of the battle. For all their work, the demon forces were hardly phased by the losses. More were coming free of the portal, nearly as fast as they were killing them. Fortunately, while that was true for those the Scouts killed, both Ranma-sensei and the Urgoks had pinched the sides of the demons, nearly splitting them in half. For the first time, she got a real look at how good her sensei really was.

The man was physical mixed with magical, literally in the midst of the demons and cleaving them apart faster than the eye could track, while at the same time spells would tear apart those he missed. Spikes from the earth, blasts of fire hotter than Makoto knew she could produce, a blast of what had appeared water until the demons it splashed onto froze solid, a clap of thunder that made hers look like sparks burned a literal hole through a demon and into the one behind.

How he could focus enough for spells while constantly in motion was beyond Jupiter. Lots of experience, she supposed.

And then Queen Serenity herself, Makoto hadn't noticed her doing anymore attacks, so why... Her eyes widened, and suddenly she was thankful to have the Queen there on her side, on the front line, and experienced with magic as she was.

The demons hadn't been standing idle while they slaughtered them. They tried swarming around the Scouts, rushing in faster than the one they had fought days ago, jumping above – Queen Serenity was there, blasting them back fiercely, fatally for most. Not only that, but as Ranma-sensei had warned once, the demons weren't limited to melee. Some spat globs of what was surely acid, others snapping projectiles of bone or fang, one even belched a gas that ignited in its approach. Still the Queen was there, turning acid back to the demons, deflecting projectiles into other demons, quelling the flames.

The woman was their defense, and a terribly good one at that.

But this wasn't the limit to their fighting force, either. Makoto felt elated as they made steady work of their opponents, a nearly invincible wall of magic and she supposed scythe blocking the demons from escaping into their city. For once they didn't face an enemy with the upper hand, fight against uneven odds, or even burden themselves with the worry over the life of an innocent.

More than that, they had allies this time. Ranma-sensei was one, his demons more. And then the newest ones came.

Their was a challenging shout, and suddenly the redheaded foreigner was darting on bare feet along the grass to their left, a pair of stone knives in either hand, and she barreled into the demons unexpectedly. If Makoto had any doubt of the girl's ability without a planet of power backing her, those vanished when she saw the sickening explosions of limbs and bodies from the Priestess's spells, attacks less flashy and more deadly.

The girl wasn't alone as two beings, winged like Mars, came down and deposited a third carrying a simple metal staff, and the three of them made their way into the demons, supporting Bec. Makoto almost worried for the little kid until she saw the fire and ice that he wielded with his two staffs.

Who in the world were these people?

Feeling the 'sickness,' as they were beginning to call it, Makoto calmed down her blasts of magic, switching over to her Senshi spells. She wasn't the first to feel the effects, as seen by others using their own Senshi abilities, though others still showed no signs of it yet.

Ranma-sensei's earlier tips on getting her Senshi spells out faster made a lot more sense now that she had started learning "real" magic, also what they were calling it. It was having the visual of the spell before even saying the words, simply releasing the energies as soon as they were spoken, not dragging the word out as the attack 'built up.' It was so similar to "real" magic, yet different as the spells followed a specific guideline.

A guideline that she could use to make it faster. "JUPITER OAK EVOLUTION!" She shouted it faster than ever before, and the attack came faster than ever before.

It was depressing how much more effective the attack was than her earlier blasts of magic, both lighting and fire, but that had been so much more fun. Actually making contact with the demons with her spells now vaporized them nicely.

She hadn't noticed because of the many corpses piling everywhere, but the enemy's numbers had thinned out drastically. Queen Serenity was even able to go back on the offensive, blowing apart the straggler demons that quickly found out their companions they thought were surrounding them were nothing more than dead bodies.

They began advancing forward, into the groves of carcasses, and teamed up with Bec and the others. Together they approached the portal, only occasionally ending a demon when necessary. Ranma and Kresh had moved side-to-side, supported by the two Hunters and the Nekomata, and the five of them had contained the last of the demons to a small circle pressed against the portal, preventing more from coming through.

Just then, Makoto heard an odd shout. "Fubuki Sousou!" Blizzard funeral? What could that possibly-

The last pocket of demons vanished. Literally. In a small cloud of mist and an icy shock wave. There was a small creator beneath the portal now, and nothing else tried coming through, suggesting the blast had carried partway through it as well.

A dark form descended from the sky suddenly (Stop with the fliers already, Makoto deadpanned), scooping up another shape from behind the portal she hadn't seen. There was a wet rip, a brief snap, and then that second shape fell down in two pieces. The portal immediately shrank in size before vanishing.

Ranma-sensei faced the newcomer warily as he landed on the ground, marching towards them. Makoto felt herself being influenced by his unease, eyeing whomever it was. An older man with tanned, leathery skin. Obviously a foreigner. His hair was dirty and with a great bushy beard, all of its mostly grey, and his clothing was dark with a tan trench coat over it. The man was wiping his hands of something that appeared black, but his beady eyes were fixed only on one person in their entire group.

"Bec," the man rumbled, voice deep and without a Japanese accent. The words following weren't Japanese either, all with the same accent.

The red haired girl, now covered in blood, blinked up at him. She took a step back at his approach, jaw slowly dropping. Ranma watched her and the man both. Finally, Bec shook her head and shouted something, now her words not Japanese. Actually, they sounded similar to the man's.

Abruptly, dark-and-scary dropped to a knee before the girl, opening his arms wide. His smile was watery, and it occurred to her that he didn't often express such a positive emotion. He muttered quietly, "Bec..."

The Priestess leaped from the ground towards him, tackling the man in a sudden hug. He caught her and stood, spinning with her in his arms. They were both laughing now, even as a second man – this one, thankfully, Japanese – approached from the darkness towards them.

The next man was remarkably simpler, black hair and black eyes, an average, youthful Japanese male, his simple business suit suggesting he recently entered the workforce. He appeared maybe twenty years old, and his soft smile made him look attractive enough that Makoto confirmed that: yes, she would date him.

"So it is her, Beranabus-sama," the man said, eyeing the laughing couple. Ranma-sensei watched him too, stance rather predatory though Makoto felt only she might recognize it. It was subtle, even for those who practiced martial arts.

Finally, the man released Bec, and the blood-soaked girl staggered a few steps before turning a bright smile towards Ranma-sensei. "Ranma, meet Bran, whom I told you about from my quest. He survived!"

The man smiled, suddenly looking sheepish as if something about the statement was something to be embarrassed about. Then, he wiped the expression and turned calm, power and command seeping into his stance and bearing similar to the Queen and Ranma himself. "My name is Beranabus," he said in perfect Japanese, "leader of the Disciples. I am a Magician."

XxX

Setsuna had heard rumors of Magicians before, not the stagecraft kind but those of real, literal talent. Humans that were beings of magic, like Demonata, rather than flesh, with an innate skill that was always said to be unheard of. However, word of Magicians – even during the Moon Kingdom – always came from a friend who heard it from a friend that someone had witnessed one. No one she had met ever actually met one.

And yet this Beranabus claimed the title. She wished briefly that she had access to the Time Gates so that she could inspect his past, perhaps see if she could confirm any rumors about Magicians if he actually was one.

Threat resolved for the time being, the Scouts had been sent back home. Only she, Ranma, and Queen Serenity remained with Bec and the Urgoks, all of them following Beranabus and his Disciple named Yuudai back to a hotel room. The Disciples, Setsuna had actually heard of: magically talented individuals that had banded together for one purpose or another. She had witnessed a couple over the centuries.

"So you're Bran," Ranma started once they all got settled in the hotel room, untransformed and undisguised. He held less importance on secret identities. "The little boy who danced with demons and ran fast and helped close the Tunnel with Bec. Fifteen hundred years ago."

That attracted Setsuna's attention, regarding the man in a new light. He was old, literally and physically. He obviously hadn't taken Mercury's drug that reversed age, trapping people eternally in their prime until an unnatural death – pathogens, murder, et cetera. Perhaps something of his nature as a Magician gave him a longer life.

Beranabus gave a nod. "The same. Drust, whom Bec also saved when closing the Tunnel, taught me magic, back then much stronger than now, and after his death I searched for others with magical ability. Knowing the threat of the Demonata, I founded the Disciples to fight back. I have my members scattered around the world, each knowing how to identify when rogue mages begin attempting to open windows into the Demonata universe, and each knows what is needed to stop them."

He gestured towards the Japanese man. "Yuudai here is the last living Disciple stationed in Japan, and needless his stories of... the Sailor Scouts have been distracting, let alone the other oddities found throughout this country, especially Nerima. He contacted me when there was an eruption of magic in this single distract, crossings every other day and individuals throwing magic around despite it having drained from the air and earth years ago."

"So, are you here to help?" Ranma asked, cutting to the point.

The man shrugged a shoulder. "I don't bother myself with the human universe. Demons always get into the heads of the weak-willed, always try and cross over, and I have the Disciples to contain them. The real threats I have found lie in the Demonata universe. I will only be here a short time before crossing to continue my real work, stopping the genocides before they begin."

"Well said," Queen Serenity commented, demeanor that of a ruler. "For a moment, one could almost think you didn't entirely dance around the question."

Beranabus's dark eyes slid to her, studying for a moment. Then, he shrugged again. "Originally, I came here assuming that the outbreak of magical occurrences could give me a new batch of recruits. That is my true purpose. This city – this district – has the greatest concentration of those with magical talent I have ever seen. If I can reach them before the Demonata do, it would be a great advantage.

"Of course, that was before I just witnessed five attempted crossings within three miles of each other, and the one that managed poured hundreds of Demonata through. That cannot be coincidence. Something is mobilizing against humanity, as seen by how readily they crossed over. This is the kind of threat that crops up around once every couple centuries, one that can actually eradicate humanity. I intend to stop it in their universe, like the others."

Ranma smiled at him, nothing nice in the expression. "Let's get one thing straight first. You try and recruit even one of my girls, I'm going to shove my foot up your ass so far you won't bother sitting down in this universe for years."

Ah, Ranma. Always the diplomat.

The one named Yuudai seemed stunned and outraged by the disrespect, while Ranma continued, "Now that that's clear, let's talk about stopping this threat. Magician or not, you can't just storm into Mordor, fight off the armies until you reach Mount Doom, and then just push Big Bad into the lava. Might make a good movie, but a Demon Master would tear you to pieces first."

"Tear me to pieces?" Beranabus asked, his sudden grin wolfish. "Many have tried, to limited success. You simply have to know how to fight them properly."

Ranma raised an eyebrow, considering that. Setsuna had a sudden reminder of her confession to him and his rejection, and she turned from Ranma to Beranabus as he began speaking again, "Just like how a single Demonata crossing into this world can cause mass death to humans, one magically gifted individual going into theirs can do the same to them. The magic there is heavier, more responsive. The things you can do infinitely more spectacular. Occasionally, a lucky man can go toe-to-toe with a weaker Demon Master on almost equal footing."

"If normal magic users can do that..." Ranma muttered, and Setsuna felt the suggestion. As Senshi, they should be able to do so much more. "Look, Bran, we've reasoned out the worst of this threat already before you came, but how do you think they could accomplish destroying us?"

"Using lodestones would be easiest," Beranabus replied, "as Bec can attest to with the Tunnel. They can allow greater numbers to arrive faster, and the Tunnel will widen over time until it allows the passage of Demon Masters, remaining open until the power from the lodestone drains, which could take years.

"Other than that, which is the most common threat I've faced over the centuries, there are obscure rituals powerful enough to get a master over, or enough mass sacrifice might accomplish it. Like how those too weak to open a window sacrifice themselves for it, while others – like today's – remain alive to keep it open, except on a scale of hundreds to thousands."

Ranma nodded, then ran a hand through his hair before turning to Queen Serenity. "Any more questions?" She shook her head, and Ranma repeated the question for Setsuna. She also shook her head, though Ranma's gaze lingered on her for a moment longer before turning back to the Magician.

Beranabus grunted. "I got some for you, now. The first problems reported from Juuban came two years ago, along with reports of the Sailor Scouts fighting it, saving me the trouble of wasting resources. However, never were there any mentions of you, yet you come right before all these new problems come up." He tilted his head towards the demons. "Not to mention I just witnessed Demonata working together with humans to kill other Demonata. It's like you're their master or something."

"None of those are actually questions," Ranma observed, a slight mock in his response.

Beranabus wasn't goaded. Blunt as a rock, he asked, "Who are you? Where did you come from? How are you related to this threat? Are those demons subjugated to you?"

Setsuna smiled at that, turning an eye back to Ranma. The man, Beranabus, obviously put up with very little nonsense. Ranma seemed unphased, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed. "My name is Uzuki-Saotome, Ranma. Where I come from... well, that's complicated and irrelevant. How am I related to this threat? I don't really know yet, but we're pretty sure there's something to do with me. It's how things tend to work. The Urgoks are mine, yes, but Yuka here is human. Human enough, anyways."

The Magician glanced towards Yuka, studying the pale skinned glamor. He snorted after a moment. "Human?"

"Consider it a curse," Ranma said, giving a shrug.

Something about that struck a chord in Beranabus and Bec both, Setsuna saw. Both stared at Yuka for a few moments longer before softening their expressions and turning back to the conversation. Beranabus's penetrating gaze turned onto Ranma again. Ranma only stared back, unflinching and unconcerned.

Finally, the elder man's deep voice rumbled softly, "You are young, cocky, and a smartass. Even so, you're strong – stronger than any human I ever met before on this side. When I go back to the Demonata universe, I'd rather have you with me to help stop whatever is causing this. What say you? Stay here and continue grunt work in containing crossings, even though you are not needed, or come with me into their universe, working to stop them from within where you'll actually make a difference?"

Something about this meeting struck something with Setsuna. Too soon! Crystal Tokyo's warning, the letter... It almost appeared that they were on the verge of ending the threat, especially with the Magician's confidence, however there was still much more of the letter to cover before they should reach this point. Queen Meioh had mentioned that she enacted Crystal Tokyo rather than committing to crossing over and seeking the threat in their universe, yet already the question of doing so was brought up.

This was much too soon!

She opened her mouth to intervene, but Queen Serenity beat her there, "No shame nor subtlety. You are very obviously trying to manipulate my Senshi into your service." She did not sound pleased about it, either. "If such a drastic choice is made as to actually assault their universe, it will be done together, working between ourselves, and not Ranma following you into the unknown. Furthermore, how dare you accuse him of acting needlessly here? If he wasn't here, there would have been more than one portal open today, resulting in a slaughter. And although it is none of your business, Ranma is also the one teaching those other girls how to fight back. He needs to be here."

Silence.

Setsuna stared at her Queen in a mild surprise, seeing the cold anger in her eyes. Beranabus looked equally surprised, likely not stood up against very often.

No one said anything for a few moments, then Ranma shook his head and laughed. "Thanks, Crystal, but it wasn't necessary. I'm not going with him." His blue eyes slid back to Beranabus and hardened. "Everything she said is true though. If you can't solve this yourself and want my help, we will work together. And if we do end up going into their universe, I'm not leaving Juuban behind unprotected. I want to be confident of its security before I'm willing to leave."

Beranabus grunted, visibly displeased by the turn of things. "Idealistic children. What matters a dozen human lives to the millions – billions – you could save by stopping the force at work here? You focus on the present, those few lives you save at the moment, but not the many you save in the end. You dare to weigh a dozen, a hundred, even a thousand lives against that of the planet, and then say that those few are the more important, because there are a few you could save now when later you won't have the power to save any as everyone dies because we failed."

Even Queen Serenity hesitated at that, Ranma only watching him without emotion. Setsuna shook her head, asserting herself in the conversation in defense of her Queen. "Is that what you say to help yourself sleep each night? Do you even consider the possibility that you might have saved those few lives and stopped the threat, with only a little bit of effort to accomplish both? You who apparently remains immersed in the war against Demonata and knows only battle dare presume to understand the responsibility of Queen Serenity?

"Her duty is to the people, making sacrifice of herself to protect the many over the few – as you stated – and you so thoughtlessly speak as if she doesn't already know. Watch your words hereon, Magician, for I will not tolerate more slander against my Queen."

Outwardly she was icy calm, nearly glaring in disdain, while on the inside Setsuna felt a warm satisfaction. It had been so long she had last spoken out for her Queen. It felt good doing so again.

Ranma gave her a praising look and grinned, and Setsuna felt just a little more warmth within. Beranabus, however, shook his head. His voice came with an underlying tone of anger, "I have tried before. Many times before. All but a precious few, everyone I saved only died when the threat overtook us momentarily – overtook us because I turned my attention from it for those few. It is a risk I am no longer willing to take, especially not against a mobilized Demon Master."

He sighed, weathered face seeming to age several years as his anger and frustration bled out. "However, I am not here to debate morals and ethics. I am here to get the job done. I ask for your help. If you will not give it, I will continue about my work."

Ranma opened his mouth immediately, but Queen Serenity stopped him with a raised hand. She, like Setsuna, knew well of Ranma's foot-in-mouth tendency, and this was a matter that required a slight delicacy and diplomacy. Seeing Ranma settle back, Queen Serenity said, "I would implore you, sir Beranabus, to not consider this help now or help never. It is apparent we are on the same side here, and while our intended methods may be different, our goals are much the same.

"Though we may part ways now, there might come a time in the near future that you or we learn something new or the status of things change. We will help you within reason, and ask that you do the same for us. It would be well for both of us to know we have allies elsewhere: for you, in the central location of attack, and for us, in the Demonata universe."

Beranabus snorted at that. "Once I cross back over, you will never see me again. That I can assure you." Before entirely dismissing them, however, one hand came to his bushy beard and stroked it in thought. "But I would be a fool to dismiss a possibility out of hand. You may consider the Disciples and myself allies, Queen of Old. For now."

Queen Serenity thanked him, sealing the matter. They began to gather themselves to leave, tensions dropping again and reverting into conversational levels. Ranma confronted the Magician, asking, "You were flying with magic, right? I so gotta learn that."

At the same time, the Japanese Disciple, Yuudai, approached Bec, striking up a conversation. Setsuna had noticed how he had secretly been glancing at the Priestess throughout the meeting. The interest was obvious, and she was struck at how quick and even whimsical attraction could be. She compared it to what she felt for Ranma, if it had been so quick or a dragged out matter, and then shied away from the thoughts.

Finally, as they were leaving the room, Setsuna noticed that Bec wasn't leaving with them. The redhead was in a conversation with Beranabus, seeming to struggle with something. Setsuna knew people well enough to know what Bec's old friend was pressuring her into. Beranabus was driven towards his cause entirely, and he would manipulate even Bec into it. He wouldn't see it as such, seeing instead something much more noble, but in essence that's what it was.

They hadn't even left the hotel before Bec caught up to them, and she went to Ranma directly. The girl gave a weak smile. "When Bran crosses into their universe, I... I'm going with him. I have until then to help you out, and say my goodbyes to Aunty Nodoka."

There wasn't always a joy in being right.

XxX

Eleven loved people.

The joy they could display, the love, passion, rage, sorrow, revulsion, trust, fear, surprise... Such a wide range of emotions. No two people were the same either, like snowflakes, as amazing as it was among a planet of billions. Interaction with another person was a profound experience he couldn't quite express into words, the delightful art of socializing.

He very much treasured these moments when he could leave his very few companions and actually meet strangers, discover new hidden personalities, share a few moments of companionship, and occasionally experience the pleasure of a woman. He had a job to do out here, and he would do it, but he would enjoy himself while doing so.

BANG! BANG BANG! "This is the police! Please open the door or we will be forced to break it down!"

Eleven sighed, swirling his glass of scotch and hearing the ice clinking. This was in inconvenience, but to be completely honest he needed to get back to work anyways. This seemed a good time to start again.

"Yes, yes, I'm coming, sir!" he called back, then leaned against his padded leather seat and stretched. His glass clinked again in the motion, the sound drawing his attention as he relaxed again.

"Pet," he drawled, a slow, sensuous smirk making its way to his features as a girl came in from the kitchen. She was a pretty little thing, dressed in a nice little number he heard was called a french maid uniform or something similar. The girl had had it stored away even before he got to her. "My hat, if you will."

She was also the original owner of this house, going by the name Furiha Nagato. She was now one of the many that occupied it. Eleven's collection was spread throughout the building in various rooms, men and women standing at attention with eyes downcast, waiting for his next command.

Pet returned, carrying his black, wide-brimmed hat in both her hands. Eleven stood up and took the hat, thanking her and handing over his unfinished scotch. "I'll be right back," he muttered to her, putting the hat on and beginning to make his way over to the door before this era's peacekeepers continued trying to break in.

Eleven swung open the front door, then leaned against it as he studied those that disturbed him. Black boots, navy blue pants, light blue undershirt, and dark blue vests – along with a variety of badges, letterings, and words. There were three of them, the eldest male in the lead and two younger folk standing just behind him.

The lad on the left had the spark.

"Evening, gentlemen. How may I assist you this fine day?" Eleven asked, peering at them from under the brim of the hat.

"I'm sorry for disturbing you, sir," the leading man started, "but Ms. Nagato has been showing rather unusual behavior of late, and her neighbors have been growing worried. I understand the inconvenience, but we have been asked to confirm that there is nothing wrong. If we may please speak with Ms. Nagato for a bit, just a sentence or two to confirm she is well...?"

Interesting... "Certainly," Eleven said, smirking. "By all means, come in."

The police entered the home, like unsuspecting sheep to the slaughter, glancing around at the lovely home and its flowery decorations. None of his collection was in eyesight from the entryway, not that Eleven felt it would matter.

He stepped over to the side after closing the door, now leaning against the wall with his hands in his pockets, hat covering the most of his features now. "Pet! Some men would like to speak to you."

There was some shuffling from the police at that, startled, and then the measured steps of Pet could be heard entering the room. There was a few moments of silence, and then the elder man cleared his throat. Embarrassment was obvious in his voice, "Ms. Nagato, please excuse us, we just wanted to be certain all was well for you. I believe we understand why your neighbors were unsettled, so just a word and we will leave."

Pet's soft, enticing voice responded, "There is no need to worry, policeman, I am doing wonderfully now. Master is wonderful."

Eleven felt near laughing at the situation the poor peacekeepers found themselves in, but he felt it was time to stop delaying the matter. The magic he had been gathering for some time now was put to use, the words of a spell leaving his lips. He encompassed the three peacekeepers, one after the other, spinning magic around their minds until they were wrapped tight and nice.

A compulsion, a domination, a mind-control, an enslavement... There were many words and names for the spell, but the fact of the matter was that these men were his now, the newest additions to his collection. He lifted his head to see the vacant expressions that had overtaken them and smiled.

He pointed at the young man that was now on the right, the one he could feel the tiny spark of magic within. "You there, head to the back room and await further command." He walked over to Pet and recollected his glass of scotch, considering what to do with the remaining peacekeepers. Unlike the rest of his collection, they didn't have the spark, making them all but useless to himself.

However, there was a certain advantage to having infiltrators in the department of peacekeepers, especially with how important they had become in this era. He addressed the eldest, "What is your name?"

"Mido, Master. Yamada, Mido," the man answered, his tone distant.

"Mido..." Eleven repeated, committing the name to memory. Mido couldn't just be another nameless servant if he was to be used properly. "Mido, I want you both to go back to your establishment and act as your original selves. Nothing should appear amiss, nor should you acknowledge me to anyone else. You will think of an explanation for why the last is not returning ever. Continue your life normally until I come for you."

"Yes, Master," both men nodded, giving bows before turning and heading back out. The younger turned to Mido and spoke casually, about how pleasant the visit had been and how glad he was there weren't any problems. Mido grumbled agreement, both appearing exactly as they should.

Eleven grinned, finishing his glass of scotch and anticipating the further clash of ice against the glass. He handed the glass over to Pet and walked back over to his leather seat from earlier. He sank into the cushion, then slouched to the side and threw a leg over an arm, facing up towards the white ceiling.

The idea of infiltration in the peacekeepers gave him another idea. He could take the whole department, having the entire defense under his control. But what else defined power in this era? What else would give him advantage? Media influenced the masses, government imposed rule over them, the underground were a slippery power. He could take the emperor himself, even. So many possibilities!

XxX

Setsuna awoke to the near inaudible sound of footsteps on her rug. Someone was in her room and approaching her bed.

She didn't have to open her eyes to calculate the intruder's exact position, and a willing with her mind had her Garnet Rod appear in hand under her warm blanket. She waited a heartbeat for one last step, then she whipped her arm up in a flurry of cloth. Before whomever it was could realize what just happened, the end of her weapon was against his or her throat.

She had opened her eyes to the darkness of night, sleepiness banished in the moment. She saw whom the intruder was and sighed, lowering the Garnet Rod. "Ranma," she acknowledged.

The man brought a hand to his neck for a second, but instead of commenting on it, he said, "Crossings. The Hunters are out trying to deal with as much as they can, but they aren't fast enough for all of them. We need to move, now."

"Go then. I'll inform the others and catch up as soon as possible," Setsuna mentioned, mind falling back into calculations. More crossings... She noticed Ranma cough and turn to the side before nodding. Something was making him feel awkwar-

Setsuna only then recognized the coolness of the air against her chest. The sheets had fallen from her in her counter against the 'intruder.' "Goodness, Ranma, just go already."

He grinned sheepishly and left. It was only a few seconds later she heard the front door open and close.

Setsuna shook her head, throwing off the blankets from the rest of her and rising. Honestly, couldn't he just have knocked? Though, he'd seen more than just her breasts before, so she wasn't terribly embarrassed by this. He had his own female body, too.

Transforming into her Senshi form dressed her, and she quickly roused the other occupants of the house before using her communicator to gather the others. It took only a minute for Saturn and Neptune to stumble down the stairs and leave the house with her, though Neptune's aquamarine hair was comically messed from her interrupted sleep.

Running in the chill of night, Setsuna took a moment to appraise Hotaru. The girl no longer struggled against the gravity from her ring, and her formerly slender limbs had gained some definition since. She hadn't reached an adequate strength yet, but she was getting there.

Her mind fell back to the threat. Ranma had informed her via communicator that two were going to open for sure. He told them to head for the street the Scout's favorite arcade was, sending the Hunters ahead of them, while he went elsewhere to close the other window alone. They had been caught off-guard by this late night attempt, losing the precious time they needed to close all the attempts.

It had been nearly a week since the last successful crossing, when they first met the Magician Beranabus. She and the other Senshi had gotten a fairly decent grasp over magic by this point, so she thought, but they still needed experience. They spent too much time and attention on producing spells, not enough variety either. Ranma's latest lesson had started moving into them getting their spells stronger, doing more damage – hotter fire, more powerful lightning, colder ice, denser vines.

Of course, Ami had had an accident two days ago when practicing. Even after they had been working for so long, a stray thought had come to her mid-spell, and it had been Ranma who almost died as a result. Apparently she was still bitter over being forced to drop from school and accidentally remembered that at the wrong time. She spent the rest of the day unconscious because of it.

Still, their side had become nearly unstoppable. She knew the dangers of that thought, but it was true. Ranma and Queen Serenity were in a league of their own, destruction and power respectively, with Kresh not far behind. Nothing this threat, Ranma's "Big Bad", had thrown at them had phased any of them. And then the Sailor Scouts and Hunters, they had already become more skilled and more powerful in leaps and bounds since Ranma resumed his lessons.

Whatever Crystal Tokyo was trying to warn them of, whatever horrors the letter was trying to guide her through, they had managed to bring the enemy to a stalemate. She didn't see that changing anytime soon, though she was prepared to face things if it did.

They arrived at the street at almost the same time the Inners did, seeing them round the corner about hundred yards down it. Between their two groups, hovering starkly bright against the white streetlights and dimly lit closed shops, was a deep crimson portal. Window, as Beranabus called them. Setsuna actually appreciated the color of this one, it being her favorite.

Both Hunters were there before them, and it appeared that there was only one opponent. That put Setsuna on guard as they approached, and she studied the fight closely.

The single demon was huge, easily eight feet tall. Its head was that of a wolf, fur white streaked with silver, though its teeth were at least three times too large, leaving its maw stretched unnaturally. It's eyes, too, were mismatched – the left, the golden of a regular wolf and the right, blood red with a slitted pupil of a reptile or cat.

Under that head was something else entirely. Skin a fleshy pink, it was like the hunched body of a hairless werewolf. The strong legs were eerily human, while the arms were thick as tree trunks. From the spot just below the elbows sprouted two long blades of white, most certainly bone, that extended a foot past its hands. They were thick at base but flattened and sharpened near the tips. Hairless claws were clenched tightly in fists, dripping dark blood down its palms. On its stomach, like a plate of armor, was an oval of black and green scales. It's back had a similar dome.

The Hunters bore spears and shields, harrying the giant together. The two demons, only around three feet tall each, were especially dwarfed next to the monster. However, Setsuna was surprised to see them powerfully resilient even so. Unlike Ranma, she couldn't tell the two apart, but one boldly leapt forward to block a wrist-blade, planted feet unmoving from the blow, while the other used the first's shoulders to jump high, arching over the demon and aiming a spear thrust into its eye.

There werewolf-demon snarled and moved its head in time, swatting the airborne Urgok away. It blocked and landed on its feet, sprinting on short legs to engage again.

Setsuna frowned at the seemingly straightforward fight, almost close enough to attack. That's when magic entered the fray.

The Demonata tilted its head and howled into the night sky. The sound was more than deafening, likely infused with magic like Usagi had managed to do with her hairpins. Setsuna flinched and covered her ears, as did the Urgoks, but the fight went on. Bright orange fire began swirling around one Urgok's spear like a flaming lance, and it thrust towards the werewolf.

It only smacked the spear with a blade, and at the contact the flames winked out and a layer of ice was left coating the weapon. The other Urgok tossed a ball of raw magic at the legs of the demon from behind, hamstringing it. Its head whipped towards that Urgok and it roared. The air itself distorted from the intensity, and the Urgok gave a soundless cry as the sonic blow launched it back in a small spray of blood.

The Senshi were close enough, and together they all pitched in. Setsuna herself held her hands apart and a massive ball of flames swirled into existence, bright oranges flickering and licking her hands. She forced her hands together, and the ball shrank with it, concentrating the heat and glowing brighter and brighter. Finally, only a small blade of brilliant white was left, mentally shaped to include a hilt and sharp edges. With a final burst of magic and intent, Setsuna sent the small dagger hurtling into the demon.

The dagger of fire was a new idea of hers she wanted to try out. Among the chaos of the others also attacking, Setsuna was barely able to watch the blade impact the demon's oval of scales on its chest, and then watch it deflect off and go skittering off into a nearby building. She winced as it went through the glass without shattering it, leaving an orange, melting hole, and then vanish off inside – likely punching through the other side too.

...Oops?

Others had similar success. Fire left no mark on it, Mercury's spears of ice only melted and the one that managed to hit its fleshy shoulder healed, lightning only went in one outstretched hand and came out the other, snares were useless, and Mars' idea of just a large blast of raw magic only barely staggered it.

And then Queen Serenity had her turn. She had stopped the reflected lightning from frying Neptune, then lifted the Ginzuisho vindictively. Setsuna could feel the power behind whatever spell it was before it was unleashed, a subtle throb through her whole body that nearly staggered her.

Lightning was the choice, everyone found out quickly. There was another deafening roar as a blinding pillar of light exploded from the Ginzuisho and lanced into the werewolf mercilessly. Setsuna's hands came to her ears as the roar didn't let down, and her eyes remained shut as the spell continued in all its fury.

The air gained the scent of ozone. After what felt like an hour, but was likely only a matter of seconds, it stopped. Setsuna exhaled, trying to recompose herself. There was a ringing in her ears and a black bar across the center of her vision from the very brief glimpse she had had.

She focused back on the demon, but the black bar covered it. Frowning, Setsuna took a couple cautious steps back as she waited for her eyes to recover, assuming the Demonata was certainly dead after that but not willing to take chances. A shape began to form, and she kept moving as she watched it.

The others seemed to be faring no better than her, not even Queen Serenity. The Queen likely hadn't anticipated the side-effects of that spell herself. Still, Setsuna wasn't jealous exactly, but she recognized that the power behind that spell alone was well beyond what she could do, ever. No one would be willing to throw down over the title of Queen anytime soon, and for good reason.

Her vision finally cleared enough, and Setsuna saw the demon. It was still alive, amazingly, but it was heavily wounded. The black of charred skin covered its entire form, a wispy smoke rising from where the fur used to be on its head, limbs twitching in heavy convulsions as it lie on its back, the oversized maw gnashed in silent howls. The shell of scales on its stomach had apparently been the entry point, now with a circle over a foot and a half wide of disgusting black open where scales had been previously.

The demon was attempting to stand again, but the twitches were too violent to allow it to. Setsuna prepared to finish it off, gathering more magic from Pluto. A blade of air strong enough to sever its head, she was thinking.

"DAGGER!" a female voice shrieked from behind them all, fury coloring the word.

Setsuna, and the others, turned to see who it was. A woman leapt from the roof of a building, landing the jump as easily as Ranma could. She had a dark grey T-shirt on and black motorcycle pants. Her black hair tumbled past her shoulders. Her back was to Setsuna, blocking her view of the woman's face, but she could see the sword the woman held, the curved blade of a flyssa, the metal black or painted.

The werewolf-demon's bi-colored eyes widened at the sight of her, and despite its injuries, it rose enough to began a lope back towards the portal. It had been healing itself, Setsuna recognized.

"What the..." a male voice started, and Setsuna was relieved to hear Ranma rejoin them. She saw him staring at the new girl, eyes wide. "Ath-"

"Lykaios, follow him!" the black haired girl shouted, and she began sprinting after the battered demon.

A second form left the roof, presumable Lykaios. There wasn't time for details as both he and the woman sprinted, but she could make out grey and gold from whatever he was wearing. The Demonata slipped on the remains of whatever fool mage opened the portal, but that sent it tumbling into the beautifully colored portal. Immediately, it began to shrink, but both the man and woman managed to jump in after it in time.

There was silence following.

Ranma made a confused sound, leaning against his scythe. Setsuna could see blood both human crimson and demon foreign covering him. "So, can anyone tell me who that was? And why it smells like burned meat and burning building?"

Now that Setsuna thought about it, the smell of a fire was beginning to overtake the ozone. She was reminded of her deflected dagger, and her eyes went wide. She looked towards the building with the melted glass, and deep in its bowels she could see an orange glow. "...We should leave."

"In a moment," Ranma muttered. "Galruk..." One of the Urgoks came over, standing next to Kresh. Only then did Setsuna notice that she didn't see the other Hunter. "Help me with Femern."

He walked over to the sidewalk, and Setsuna saw the pale form lying there motionless. Her stomach dropped out from under her. No...

Ranma knelt next to the small, bulky form and sighed heavily. He shook his head, giving a curse. Setsuna slowly walked over, a morbid curiosity overtaking her mind's pleas to run, to look away, to defy what she knew would be there.

The Hunters had been working so well together, there's no way just that one sonic roar could have... Setsuna beheld the Urgok, animalistic eyes vacant and glazed, blood seeping from its mouth and ears to form a small puddle. It's shield was still attached to its arm, but the spear had clattered off to the side.

That single attack had killed one of Ranma's Hunters, Demonata who hunted other Demonata and knew magic. If it had managed that to one of them, what would it have done if it had been Hotaru standing before the roar? If it had been Michiru? Rei? Minako? Herself, even? Could any of them have fared any better?

It was a glaring reminder of a fact Setsuna had thought she already knew. Just because they were learning magic, just because they were becoming that much more powerful and deadly, didn't mean that they weren't just as fragile. Death was death. Luck still played a drastic role in battle, and it wasn't always on their side, as this Urgok could attest to.

"You'll know, when you see the first Hunter dead and realize that your side isn't as invincible as you thought..."

Setsuna spat a curse in her mind, hating the words of her future self. Of her future possible self, damn her!

Destruction... Destruction... Destruction...

"His name was Femern?" Setsuna asked quietly, laying a hand on Ranma's shoulder.

Ranma nodded, collecting the limp body in his arms. "He had a mate at home, Setsuna... He was my responsibility. I told him to come out here, and now he's... Dammit." She squeezed his shoulder in sympathy, the maelstrom of uncertainty still roiling within her mind.

"He knew what he was getting into, Lord Ranma," Kresh mentioned, large eyes peering at the slain companion. "You asked for two Hunters, and he and Galruk volunteered. You hold no blame." The larger demon turned that stare up to Ranma, animal eyes sad but steeled. "We are your familiar, Lord Ranma. We die for you. It's what we do, just like every other Demonata we've slain. Do you think their master cares when each dies?"

Ranma huffed what could have been a laugh, then shook his head. "Nice try, Kresh."

Kresh gently took Femern from Ranma. "You are the master we had always dreamed of, Lord Ranma: one who cares. All of us are happy to fight for you and, if necessary, to die for you. Galruk will take care of his body." He retreated back towards the other Urgok.

"To feel such regret over the loss of a single soldier. You are, perhaps, a more caring ruler than I ever was, Ranma," Crystal mentioned as she came over, watching the three demons with her emotions masked.

Ranma shook his head again, rising to a stand. Setsuna removed her hand from his shoulder. "He wasn't a soldier, Crystal. He was a simple hunter, someone who went out of the village and brought home food for the others... I'm not so naïve though as to wish I hadn't brought him here though. We need all the help we can get."

Setsuna watched him, then the Urgoks. The first Hunter was dead. Who was next? She knew already though, and she vowed to do everything she could to prevent it.

"When you are standing in the hospital after two friends are brought to the very brink of death."

XxX

With a shout, Ryoga struck with his fist, watching Urtec knocked it aside and lash out a vicious return. Ryoga staggered back, then collapsed to a knee, panting.

Five ESG. Five times Earth's gravity. The pressure holding Ryoga down was ungodly, like fighting with a thousand pound bag on his back. It was a struggle to even hold his fists up after so long. Urtec had no such problems, not near as skilled as Ryoga but already conditioned to the gravity.

However, in the weeks he had been here, Ryoga had been getting better each day. It was taking him longer and longer to get exhausted. He no longer consciously recognized the gravity, even if his body did. There were times now he could match Urtec's speed in short bursts.

"Enough," the bald monk said, dropping his stance to stand with his hands clasped behind his back. "Honored guest does well. Tea, and then we continue." Ryoga nodded, thankfully, and Urtec left the room.

Ryoga used the time to catch his breath. He knew the layout of the room well, having spent all his time here. Box shaped, fifteen paces between grey metal walls. Two doors, one that led to a bathroom and the other back into the Terran Palace. One of the doors had in large writing "DO NOT LEAVE. TURN AROUND. OTHER DOOR. PLEASE. WRONG DOOR." That even helped Ryoga not wander out of the training room once or twice, when he remembered to check the door for writing. Finally, there was a cot against one wall, as Ryoga also slept here under the intense gravity.

Urtec returned bearing a tray with two cups and a pot. He balanced it steadily, even as he went from earth's gravity to the room's, then set it down in the center of the room and sat with his legs crossed. Ryoga followed his example, settling down across from him.

"So tell me more about this place," Ryoga asked after taking his own cup of tea.

Urtec took a sip, watching him calmly. "Which part?"

In their time here together, they had spoke about themselves, and Ryoga found that this ancient palace had a detailed history, if embellished with mythology. Normally he didn't care about history, but there wasn't much else to talk about.

"The Queen, I guess."

"Ruler of the Moon Kingdom has always been of Serenity linage. First, as you know, came from Earth, formerly noble residing in this very palace. Her name was Dianna Serenity. After great war called Planets' Collision, when armies of all planets fought each other on barren planet Nemesis, it was Dianna who proposed union over conquest. Convincing, passionate, the great woman won over war-devastated planets, forming the United Kingdoms of the Solar System.

"Base of power was decided on Earth's moon. Great palace built there. Dianna was raised to head of union, which later was renamed to the Moon Kingdom. Head of Moon Kingdom was renamed to Queen, and so Dianna became Queen Serenity. Great Queen brought stability, rebuilding planets until scars of war healed. She formed elite core of warriors for defense, four for personal guards and five for defending the Moon Kingdom. Warriors called Senshi.

"The Queen passed title to her daughter, Queen Hera Serenity II, and died. Queen Serenity II was awful Queen. Men-biased. Genderist? No... Sexist, I believe the word is. Killed male Senshi, replaced with female. Laws passed, removing rights of men. No intelligent jobs. No intelligent schooling. Limits on male wealth."

Urtec shook his head, disgusted. "The Queen was assassinated, but damage was done. Hera's daughter took throne, Queen Tessa Serenity III. Queen Serenity III was good but weak. Could not fix Queen Serenity II's damage. Tried for many years and failed. The kingdom fell into chaos. She killed herself.

"Finally, there was Queen Crystal Serenity IV, Tessa's daughter. New great Queen. She fix many, many problems. Kingdom stabilized again. Recovered some male rights, but could not fix all. Had daughter, Princess Selene Serenity V. Moon Kingdom later attacked by Dark Moon Kingdom. Senshi died. All planets but Earth died. Queen Serenity IV died. Rulers in this palace died. The Moon Kingdom fell.

"I could tell you more about each Queen, if honored guest wishes, but we have finished tea. Let us continue," Urtec concluded, setting his cup on the tray and moving it to the side of the room.

Ryoga didn't know how much of Urtec's stories he believed, but obviously someone had lived in this oddly futuristic ancient building, and the history had been recorded as such. It reminded him briefly of that one story he hadn't really paid attention to, the Greek one, about the war over a woman. One side was Trojan, he remembered faintly. Like this, that was recorded history, but embellished with mythology, gods fighting and ancient people living on the Moon.

Ryoga fell into a stance, his muscles still sore from before, and Urtec did the same. With a shout, he move in.

As they battled, Ryoga looking oddly sluggish and ungraceful, Urtec spoke, "Me, my father, his father, his father, and so on, we all swear oath of servitude to Queen Serenity. The Queen is dead, but not forgotten. We serve in way we think she would have wished. We maintain the Terran Palace in hopes that one day it might be reclaimed."

Ryoga wished him luck in that, dropping down to sweep out the monk's legs. Urtec stumbled but remained standing, and Ryoga went through the agony of rising up again to block the retaliation.

Soon, Ryoga hoped, he would be strong enough to beat the stronger Ranma.

XxX

The day after the Urgok's death, Ranma didn't let up his daily training session. He was among the first to arrive, a few minutes before the scheduled time.

As the rest slowly trickled in, Ranma noticed something unusual with Minako's coming. Mainly, she didn't come alone. Two people, a man and a woman both obviously older than her, flanked her either side, with Minako looking slightly embarrassed. The two shared features with her as well, suggesting that they were her parents.

Mrs. Aino studied the man her daughter had identified as her sensei. She didn't know what she was expecting exactly, but he wasn't it. His uniform, she was guessing a male version of her daughter's fuku, was outlandish. He looked younger than she thought too, though in his hard eyes she could see he was older. Fairly handsome with his striking blue eyes, but nothing to grow weak in the knees over. Her daughter might disagree at that age.

Mr. Aino put his hand on Minako's shoulder as he regarded Ranma. "You are Ranma-sensei, I presume?"

Ranma planted his scythe before him. "I am."

"Our daughter has told us much about you. We thought we'd finally come and see the man who made Mina become a high school dropout," the man remarked flatly.

"Oh, be nice, dear," his wife said, laying a hand on his arm. She turned to Ranma. "It was quite the surprise when Mina first admitted to being one of this city's famous Sailor Scouts, though it was worrisome when we heard that she was dropping out of school because of it. We don't pretend to understand the kind of stress and burdens placed on you, saving the world and all, but we worry about the afterwards, when things are safe and our daughter lost the opportunity to complete her schooling."

These weren't the first parents that wished to check him out, coming with typical parental concerns. Ami's mother had come much sooner, the day after Ami dropped from school and told her.

"Look, I'll be completely honest with you. I didn't do it because I wanted to. I think these girls are too young for this sort of life, but they are all we have. If we want to save people's lives, we need all of them. Right now, what we are facing is beyond these girls' limits. I'm forcing this strict training routine so that none of them die out there, so that I can be assured that any one of them will be fine without me looking over her shoulder the whole time," Ranma said.

Mr. Aino didn't look pleased, but he nodded. "I understand that looking at the future is meaningless if Mina isn't even alive for it, and for your efforts I thank you, but I will not stand for my daughter becoming a hero only to be left forever dependent on others because she can't find proper work without a finished education."

"Then go establish on paper that she is finishing high school at home. I can't help you here."

Mr. Aino thought about it, then nodded again. With some effort, they could pull that off, and his daughter would be fine when she finally quit being a Sailor Scout, whenever that was. "We will try that, thank you. Now, the other reason we came here is to see what kind of man you are, Ranma-sensei."

Minako groaned, unable to step away from her father's grip on her shoulder.

Ranma only sighed, settling himself for a conversation that would likely eat into practice time.

XxX

"Cancel my spell! Setsuna!" Ranma shouted, a simple ball of fire leaving his hand.

Setsuna brought her hand up, concentrating. She sent her intent and magic at his spell, trying to put it out like he had done to hers in demonstration. Nothing happened to the fire. Cursing, she stepped back, and her hand came up again, bringing with it a sudden rush of wind blew the flame off course and mostly diminished it.

Ranma watched her attempt, then shook his head. "As you can see, affecting someone else's spell is difficult. You can avoid getting burned by your own fire, but now I want you to learn how to avoid the same with someone else's. This will be the focus of our next few practices."

Only the day after the first death among them, Setsuna noted the shift from how to best kill the Demonata to how to defend against the stronger ones. Before, Ranma had told them to dodge or block enemy spells, rather than try to influence them, because it generally produced the same effect with less energy. Now, though, it was obvious "generally" didn't cut it anymore.

Forever honing them into stronger weapons, each day of training another stroke of the whetstone.

Presently Ranma was breaking them into groups and listing advice. As she was paired with Hotaru, Setsuna's mind fell back to her feelings for him, her mistimed admittance, her yearning for someone that could make the loneliness of guarding the Time Gates just a little bit less lonely.

I seriously need to move on.

Fortunately, Mamoru had shown up today. Unlike the Scouts, he was allowed to continue going to college and miss some of the training sessions. If Ranma was already taken by Nemesis, then Setsuna would at least take the advice on this from Queen Meioh. She would give the reincarnated Terran Prince a chance, maybe help distract him from losing Usagi.

It helped that he wouldn't die of age too. While alone at the Time Gates, watching the happenings on Earth, she had vowed that no matter how lonely, no matter how convinced she was that she loved someone through her observations, she wouldn't ever do more than watch if he could only live a normal lifespan. Allowing herself to get too close would only end with tragedy time and time again, resulting in an even heavier loneliness each time she lost a man to time.

Shaking her head of such thoughts, at least for the moment, she focused back on what she was supposed to be doing. She and Hotaru were to try sending weak spells at each other and to cancel them before they made contact. Taking a breath, she started with a baseball sized flame.

The sun rose to its peak as they worked, more or less succeeding, and began to descend as they tried fine tuning the ability. There was still several hours before the day's practice was to end when there were several unexpected arrivals.

Setsuna's magic overwhelmed Saturn's spell of lightning, causing the crackling bolt to fizzle into sparks a foot away from her hand, leaving her perfectly unharmed. She panted, exhausted from the effort, and was relieved when Saturn stopped the attack. Ranma had been speaking truth when mentioning the amount of work it took, and doing nothing else for an entire day with only shorts breaks didn't help.

Setsuna fought down the sickness, a queasy feeling in her torso paired with a slight headache. It would only get worse the more she tried working with magic.

Wiping her forehead with a gloved hand, she noticed four individuals enter the construction site they were using. The presence of the forth immediately caught her attention, and glancing towards Ranma, she sensed trouble brewing.

XxX

Amazons... Always a pain.

XxX

"Ni hao, Ranma," a cheerful voice called, only the faintest trace of shyness detectable.

"Keep working," Ranma told the Senshi, then cursed to himself and made his way over to the newcomers. "What are you doing here, Shampoo?"

Saffron, Kiima, and Feyri weren't unwelcome, but the forth, Shampoo, Ranma had thought safely back in China, another tie to Nerima severed. The girl looked much the same as he remembered, though two things struck him odd with her behavior, mainly the lack of a greeting glomp and the claim of husband or Airen.

Feyri, standing next to the Amazon ex-suitor, spoke for her, "Your marriage was officially absolved, but there is no reason the girl can't stay in Japan." Even young, beautiful, and considerably taller, Feyri reminded Ranma too much of the Old Ghoul.

Ranma snorted. "Japan's a big country. Why is she here?"

That seemed to be the cue for Shampoo, and she smiled and lifted a covered basket that, admittedly, smelled fantastic. "Shampoo bring you yummy food for after long day. No charge!"

Mind over stomach... Mind over stomach... That smells really, really good, but mind over stomach, Ranma struggled to remind himself. He forced his eyes away from the basket and memories of how delicious the Nekohanten's food was and said, "Shampoo, I told you before, you can't be here. It's dangerous, and I don't mean Nerima dangerous." He jerked a finger towards the child Saffron. "I mean Phoenix Mountain "everyone is Akane" dangerous."

The reminder seemed to strike a chord in her, thankfully, but nothing more than a little wince. Feyri, however, wasn't deterred, much like Ranma knew Cologne wouldn't be. "Be that as it may, young Shampoo's Juuban branch of the Nekohanten is our current place of residence. She cannot leave without throwing us on the streets."

Bullshit excuse. He was surprised to see that she had indicated the Phoenix people as those who lived there too. "What, she got you all working there?"

"Indeed." Feyri paused to peer at him, and for a moment Ranma had a flash of the shriveled face and large eyes squinting. "You speak like you are defending yourself from something. There is nothing wrong in this girl supporting us and wishing to remain here. It is her right as a warrior to be in the action, yet you complain that she is only close by."

"Ranma," Nemesis cut in, "This Feyri is a crafty one. While it is likely her intentions are exactly as you think, you will not succeed in pushing Shampoo away... You should speak."

The problem with being the only person able to hear Nemesis was that the moments where he listened to her made odd silences to everyone else. He sighed. "Shampoo, can I speak with you alone for a moment?"

Feyri opened her mouth, but she closed it, frowning pensively at him. Her denial was obvious, but what could she say?

Shampoo nodded and accepted being led off a short distance. If there was an Amazon technique to listen from far distances, he was sure Feyri was using it. To his former 'wife,' he said, "Look, Shampoo, if you want to stay here, I won't stop you. However, the danger is real, and there is nothing you can do against this enemy. And if your plan is to try to "win" me, know now that there is already someone I care about... I will not tolerate you trying to 'eliminate' her as an obstacle either."

The blue haired girl paused at that, emotions being kept from her face. Then, she shook her head and beamed a smile at him, holding up her basket. "Shampoo only wish to bring you food. Hoping we could be friends."

There is no 'only' with Amazons. I don't trust her enough for this. He accepted the basket. "Thank you, Shampoo."

"Ranma very welcome!" she said cheerfully, then retreated back to the others for a quick word before leaving.

Watching her go, Ranma reminded himself again to not trust Feyri and her plans. Shampoo would be in town during this, then. A tie to Nerima not severed. He could only hope that the others remained separate.

XxX

"It... stopped," Ranma said, slowing the Senshi trailing behind him. He flipped open his communicator to tell the others, but Crystal's voice stopped him:

"Ranma, the mage ceased his or her build-up at the mall. I..."

He understood the ending, having his own senses out. More build-ups, almost guaranteed attempts at crossing, had begun, while the others ended as soon as he or the group of scouts approached the gatherer. This approach was tricky, new, and certainly guided by a power in the immediate area.

The mage that got away must be involved, he concluded. He faced the three girls with him and pressed the speak button on his communicator. "Crystal, take the one at the park. Setsuna, take the Outers and confront the one at the city hall. Inner Guard, you will meet with Galruk at the intersection... I don't know the name – around seven blocks north of that ice cream parlor you're always at. Galruk will find the mage and should stop him before he finishes."

One benefit to multiple attempts was that the spattering of magic that was hardly found in the air these days stretched thin between them, slowing the time it took for the crossers to finish.

Voices chorused a "Yes, sir" over the communicator, and the girls with him left to where he had directed them. That left him with Kresh.

He nodded at the demon, and they both sprinted towards the last crossing, near the western end of the district. The many buildings in the way provided little obstacle, but traveling the distance took some time. As they moved, however, Ranma felt more attempted crossings cropping up elsewhere in Juuban. One halted abruptly, and two more sprang up.

He cursed, while Kresh only increased their speed.

"I'm redirecting to the northern canal," Queen Serenity said over the line once her target stopped, and that was followed shortly by Setsuna mentioning that hers had stopped early as well. Ranma directed her and the Outers to the subway station.

He and Kresh reached the area of their target, but to his dismay, it was a restaurant crowded despite the late hour. The spell gathering fizzled away, but there were too many people to pinpoint its source. Cursing again, Ranma turned them to head back, leaving the caster to go free.

Two more ended – not completed – and Yuka's voice appeared over the communicator, a tad smug, "I got one."

Over the link with his Urgoks, Ranma heard Galruk say, "He stopped when I came close. I can't tell which person it was."

Ranma's mind churned, frustrated by this approach. The numbers were going down, but they were hardly stopping the enemy, and they were getting spread far from each other. There were two more on the far east side of Juuban, furthest from him and Kresh, but no one was close enough to help. He and Kresh used their speed to meet it, likely the fastest to get there even with the distance.

Crystal helped manage where the different teams should go, and while they were still far away, that was the last of the present attempts if no more appeared.

Fortunately, the two Ranma and Kresh were heading towards were close to each other, only a block or two apart. With all the currents of magic being gathered, the Urgok would be able to remain away from Ranma to face the threat, especially if it went away as fast as the others. Kresh was assigned the northern most of the two, while he took the south.

Too late Ranma realized that their treks took them too long, it having started before they even reached the west attempt, and he arrived at his site just in time to see the mage explode in a gory pillar, splattering the dark street and leaving behind a starkly obvious beige window. He had no backup right now, feeling Kresh's target leading him away further from him.

Already transformed, Ranma grabbed his scythe and pulled it over his shoulder from the holster on his back. The aura of Nemesis bled into him, washing away his fears and doubts. Short of a Demon Master, he had little to fear, and her presence helped reassure him of that fact.

"Careful, Avatar. This is a night of sly blades in the dark," she cautioned.

There was hardly any delay before two figures left the portal, and Ranma sighed, moving forward to confront them. He searched for the others, pinpointing the faint traces of Senshi and the beacons of those trying to cause additional crossings. Considering that they had their own targets, it would be some time before any would be free to help. Fortunately, no more attempts had begun.

"When you are all done, come to my position," he said over the communicator, then switched it off and tucked it away. He exhaled, then sized up his opponents.

It was similar to the situation he and Crystal had found themselves in not long ago, when they fought the mage who called himself "One" and the demon he called "of the New Batch." A white furred demon that appeared exactly the same as the last Greater Demonata was the first, while the second was another human.

It was a man, with brown hair that hung partly before his dark eyes. He was smiling, but it was a tight little thing that appeared strictly business, not genuine emotion. Oddly, he was wearing a white dress shirt tucked in with a dark vest over it. He appeared not quite of the proper time, and Ranma was reminded of the last guy's archaic accent.

The man saw Ranma and nodded at him, then began to roll up his sleeves. "Good evening, Ranma Uziki-Saotome. My name is Two, the second of twelve. I'm afraid I am here to slay you."

Planting the butt of his scythe on the ground, Ranma appraised his opponents again. "You are the second strongest of the twelve, then? Why would you come here alone if your leader already failed?"

The man blinked at him, his arms coming to rest at his sides once the sleeves were up. "You mean One? One was the weakest of us and most easily replaceable. The numerical identity we take is of ascending value, ordered by our leader, where Twelve is the strongest. I am in fact the second weakest of that rating."

The demon with the man snorted, and a scythe of bone grew from its hands, similar to the last. Ranma stared at it, remembering the last one he had to fight. It was there to learn from him, to take his abilities and counter them. Surely... this one didn't have the same experience of the first one he and Kresh had killed. That was impossible.

"Nothing personal," the man continued, "but my wife worries, so I don't wish to dally. Let us begin."

As soon as he finished speaking, Ranma was already moving, hoping for a quick end for both. Even as he did, however, he heard the sound of glass shattering behind him – where he had been standing – and the Demonata had moved as well, unbelievably fast and engaging him head on.

Ranma was thankful he had had the foresight to remove his gravity ring first, and the ease of still adjusting to a lighter world had him easily match the demon. Despite the impracticality of it, it was immediately obvious this demon had the same skill the last had had before it died, and its scythe met his in quick slashes where neither had the advantage.

Ranma hoped some of the others would finish soon.

Feinting, Ranma rammed his shoulder into the demon and blurred past its knocked-back form to engage the mage. Two was expressionless as he waved a hand before him, then ducked as Ranma crashed into a wall of ice and went sailing over him with the clear shards. Landing with a spin, Ranma prepared his weapon for a cleaving strike, but he noticed the white blur already upon him as he did, and a powerful blow met the demon's strike in a parry that jolted through his whole body.

The demon's fangs were bared, dripping saliva, as they struggled against each other. Ranma began to step back to disengage from it, but he found something was holding his foot back. A brief flick of his eyes was all he allowed, and he saw earth was now encasing his feet, a snare surely from the mage.

There was an explosion of movement as he ripped his foot out and the parry broke apart, turning into a slash and block flurry as Ranma struggled to free his other foot. Too late he noticed nets weaving from the ground, trying to encircle him, while the demon still pressed its advantage.

End it fast! "Fubuki Sousou!" he shouted, pulling together the attack as fast as possible and tossing it out.

The Demonata saw it coming and clearly had time to dodge it. However, it's black eyes locked on his as it cupped its clawed hands together, and the waves of magic pulsing from the demon shifted around it. A black ball giving off dark wisps and vapors, a void in the dark, appeared and shot forward, meeting Ranma's white.

Even as he canceled the snares forming around him, Ranma watched, stunned, as the demon's spell absorbed his gladly, both slowing at the contact and trying to outdo the other, and then in a show of power, the Fubuki Sousou exploded early, and still the black attack pressed on to him, albeit slowly now.

The fatigue of using that move reached Ranma's limbs as he dodged, and he didn't look as he heard crumbling stone from where the attack must have landed. His move was powerful enough to leave his whole body taxed in such a notable way, yet still he was overcome. Dammit.

The demon tried to engage him in melee again, but Ranma slammed Nemesis into the street, creating an explosion of gravel that split the asphalt and propelled the demon into the air, caught in the blast. Wasting no time, Ranma accepted being pelted by rock fragments as he charged forward at the mage, hoping to end him early.

The man was obviously not particularly skilled in the physical department, but still he slashed a hand and shouted a word, and a shield protected him from Ranma's slash. There was another, and a blast of air knocked Ranma back. He landed on his feet, intending to charge back in, but instead of meeting solid ground, the asphalt sank inward at his weight like it was mud, and he was buried to his thighs. The earth heaved as it solidified again, the mage giving Ranma that small smile again.

"Your speed is inhuman," Two said, calmly watching the trapped Ranma. The street began cracking around Ranma as he tried freeing himself. "As is your strength. I have great respect for you."

His danger sense went off with a sharp spike, and Ranma followed his instincts in dropping his body level with the street. He heard the sound of a blade cleaving where his body had been, then finally ripped himself free and rolled out, immediately engaged by the Demonata again.

Ranma pulled more magic from Nemesis, quick grasps of it to fill himself to the very brim. Once his body could take no more, he readied himself to unleash it, even as he still clashed with the demon. The white beast had begun including spells to its assault, particularly the fire spells One had used against him.

He knew he only had one shot at ending it, otherwise it would only come back better prepared against him. It was time for some of his more wild ideas.

A jet of lava erupted from a clenched fist, splattering the demon and causing it to howl. As it tried to retreat back, Ranma engaged it again, finally scoring deep gouges along its body and leaving the demon a mangled mess of blood and shredded meat. Still the demon tried retreat, throwing up that pink shield One had used, but Ranma broke through it and continued.

Ice tried to snare him, but Ranma shattered the attempt, and he sent the shards at the demon with an unnecessarily powerful blast of kinetic energy. They pelted holes in its hide, spurting more blood as injuries formed faster than it could heal. A quick bolt of lightning was followed by a second Fubuki Sousou, and the unprepared demon howled with painful resonation as its body was torn to pieces.

To be safe, Ranma spewed more molten lead onto its bloody remains, sizzling the demon to where nothing was left. Too much attention on one opponent left his back open for the ball of acid that splattered over his back and the the ground to buck and suddenly try to devour him with gaping fangs of asphalt black.

Dry of magic from ending the demon, Ranma had to endure the blinding pain on his back as he ripped out more magic and cleared the substance before healing himself and his uniform. For the manipulated ground, he simply caused it to be destroyed in a large crater, then pressed Two before the man could continue the assault.

Ranma landed on the ground and tried to lurch into a full sprint. He managed three steps before his foot snagged, and moving too fast for his reflexes, he went tumbling into the dirt. With armor, he barely felt the fall, but the time spent recovering left him open for the following jet of fire, and Ranma barely rolled away.

"Chaos bolt!" Ranma gasped, tossing his basic Senshi attack. It wasn't that powerful, but its energy demand was nearly nothing and it bought him time.

Two tried to swat the expanding black orb away, but it burned into his wrist in what surely had to be agonizing pain. However, the cold-faced man only cradled his wrist before continuing his spells, showing no reaction to the pain.

Snares were this man's game, in addition to the speed he could pull off spells. Ranma noticed that as he dodged another sinking-ground and ice-grab at his legs, as well as blasts of ice and raised defenses holding off his attacks. Tired of the quick shells the man could throw over himself, Ranma went for the kill, risking another portion of his energy.

For a third time, he cupped his hands and shouted, "Fubuki Sousou!" The triple combination of energies punched through the hastily erected shields, then exploded against Two.

Ranma assumed he had won, seeing the misty aftermath of his spell. He approached cautiously, limbs straining and energy falling low. The fatigue of a third use was brutal, but he refused to allow it to show. To his surprise, he found Two still alive, lying supine with his clothing now in tatters and unrecognizable as something formerly "nice."

Using the man as an example, Ranma had the street bend up to bind Two's wrists and feet, and he remained at a safe distance, ready to react to an attempted spell. Watching the heavily breathing mage, Ranma asked, "So, Two, tell me who your leader is. Why does he want me dead?"

The man coughed, but it came out like a wheeze. When it finished, he shook his head, brown hair limp and fallen away from his eyes. "I'm sorry, Mr. Saotome, but I cannot answer that. Superb move at the end there, and these bindings are well done, unable to be manipulated by me in return. You are indeed a formidable opponent."

Slamming his scythe into the ground, Ranma snapped, "Speak, damn you, or you die here." The body of Nemesis impaled the weakened street.

Kresh's opponent had finally slipped away for good, and the Urgok was rushing back, desperately needing the magic. Ranma felt the Senshi approaching as well, but only Crystal was close. All the better.

Two's smile returned, brown eyes peering towards where Kresh was approaching. "Well, I congratulate you on your victory. Forgive me, but I must go now."

"Like hell you-" Ranma started to say, but the street erupted in a violent explosion, and a wind sent all the dust and debris directly at Ranma. It bothered him little, but it interrupted his vision for crucial moments, and while Ranma tried a wide-spread fire attack, things cleared to show no corpse and the portal had closed.

It was over for now, and Ranma heaved out a tired sigh, nearly collapsing to the destroyed street to sit down and rest for a moment. He fished out the black ring Nemesis had given him and slipped it back on, holding back a groan as triple gravity began pulling on him. He made a better sweep to be sure all the attempted crossings had been stopped and that none were actively open. There weren't.

Nemesis remained silent, just her presence and the aura from touching the scythe. Ranma was left to his thoughts. For the first time, he regretted allowing Haruka go with Xycell. He wanted the extra fire power of another Outer, especially one that would be properly trained like the others.

That was only Two of twelve, the second weakest. These mages were something else.

Dully, he repeated to himself, I hate proficient, non-Senshi magic users.

XxX

"I still think it's so cool that you have all those maids and butlers at your house," she said as the museum came into sight. "And you even have your own limo. These are so hard to find in Japan."

Eleven smiled, leaned with one arm on an armrest as he peered out his tinted window. His gaze lingered on the approaching building before turning to her, and he drawled, "Just a passing fancy of mine. What about you, though? Secretary at a large corporation, aspiring artist already with such beautiful talent, a simply gorgeous woman, and just twenty years old. Tell me, what other secrets does the Azami Fukada hold?"

She was blushing, but a smile was there too. "I love gardening in the traditional style, and not just karesansui. I have always loved nature. I find it disappointing that Tokyo lacks the simple beauty that the outer cities have in such abundance."

"On the contrary, I find Tokyo to have an ample supply of beauty, if one is fortunate enough to meet her. She can draw the eye like a vibrant flower in a bland field of pebbles."

Her cheeks darkened. "Such a cheesy romantic... I happen to like poetry as well."

"Shall I compare thee to a summer day?" he quoted, now with an amused smile as the limo slowed to a stop. "Ah, but while good Shakespeare could speak flowers, I find it cliché since the actual plays. Come, let us enjoy this display of what the world has deemed timeless. I feel particularly interested in the ancient collective." She didn't need to know that he had been around before most of the museum's works were made, and that he had been alive when acclaimed William had first compiled those plays of siphoned ideas.

She thanked him as he offered a hand to help her out, and she gladly linked elbows when he presented his. "You are such an interesting man. What does one who can have anything see in simple me?"

"Something unique and precious, a personality that no one on this small planet of countless individuals could ever imitate. I see a woman, of such lovely face and form and mind, and my desire to know her consumes that faithless enemy I call my wit. People, I think, underestimate the fragility of their minds, their will, and only once the freedom of it is lost do they realize. You, my dear, have stricken mine, and I simply must have more."

Laughing lightly, she leaned into him, still blushing. "Why must you make me feel so special? I'm sure there are dozens, hundreds, of other women more beautiful and interesting than myself elsewhere in this city."

Eleven tipped his hat to the man who opened the door for them, grinning. "Indeed, what strings have you cast over my heart? Already, am I simply dancing to your tune like a helpless marionette?"

"Oh, we both know its your hand and my dancing, and I don't think I would try and cut those strings if I could. Look, the modern art is right past the unearthed relics expo. That's where we'll find the paintings I hope to match eventually."

They moved, unhurried, enjoying conversation. Eleven took pleasure in this simple flower he had stumbled across one day, and while he wanted her a part of his collection, it wasn't to be under the compulsion he had cast over the others. The most important part of her, besides her pleasant company, was the powerful spark inside that said she could be an awesome magic user. He intended to get her to reach that potential while loyal to him.

As they moved towards the modern arts and were walking past the displays of archeological findings, simple artwork or culturally significant objects, two rocks caught his attention. He rolled currents of magic around his fingers, feeling its heaviness in this time of a dying planet. He read its display: Stones Revered By Ancient Nomads, Likely Superstitions About Powers or Deified.

Marvelous. His suspicions paid off quite nicely. Now, he could enjoy his time with Azami, and once they were finished, he could get to business on his own time.

XxX

Ranma woke up sore, as was the usual. Only the nights Nemesis deemed the dream-training dangerous to his health did he get rest and wake up fresh and rested. Yuka was already gone, also increasingly common as she recovered from the trauma of her time in the... he thought it was called the Negaverse.

He had since grown numb to the sight of the dark green coffin resting in the room. It's wood was one native only to Nemesis, though none would realize. In order for her to produce that new body, she needed a secure place for it to grow – a womb of sorts – and the funeral-box was suiting. Of course, it had raised quite the alarm from the house's other occupants.

Ranma made it to the kitchen, where Setsuna was watching the news. She gestured to food in a pan, crimson eyes glued to the screen. Ranma thanked her, moving to make his plate. Other than the small clinks of his actions, the only sound between them was the news.

"-and in other news, the Iwaji Museum was robbed last night by an unknown person or group of persons. Both the museum personnel and the police are struggling to find how the hoist was accomplished, given a lack of any evidence that there was a break-in apart from the missing items. Apparently, whomever is responsible ignored all the timeless and valuable arts, in addition to stored money, and took only two stones originally found in a western region of Hokkaido.

"Very little are known about the stones, and those at the museum are only glad that it wasn't something more significant-"

Ranma ignored the television, sitting for his breakfast. Setsuna eventually turned it off, turning to him. She looked cute in her big fluffy robe over her night clothes – though he remembered sheepishly that she didn't exactly wear night clothes when sleeping.

Her expression presently was serious. "Tonight is the night they are leaving."

Ranma nodded, pushing his plate away and patting his stomach as he finished. Once it was all down, he said, "I know. While she didn't do much, I wish Bec wasn't going. It was reassuring knowing she was here."

"Who knows, it could be better that we'll have her skill there, in their universe. The Magician seemed sure in his ability to resolve the problem." Setsuna didn't believe it, considering what she saw in Crystal Tokyo and the Time Gates after, but Ranma might. Either way, it made conversation. "And she can always come back if they aren't accomplishing anything."

Ranma shook his head. "Even if there isn't a temporal issue where one day there is a year here, that girl found someone from her own time... Trust me, I know a bit about that. She will stay with him until the end of her days unless it's absolutely necessary otherwise."

Setsuna nodded in understanding. She paused for a moment, then said, "I hope you don't mind that I won't be there to see them go. Tonight, Mamoru and I have a date."

Awkwardness entered the conversation, and Ranma hesitated in answering. They both clearly recalled her small confession and his refusal. Obviously, Ranma knew that she would have to move on once he turned her down, but he felt... oddly saddened that she was turning to someone else.

He also recalled Crystal Tokyo, the Earthen Prince as King at her side. He hadn't taken the match seriously then, at least not with this Setsuna, his Setsuna, but now... He hoped that unsettling feeling in his heart wasn't jealousy.

He mustered a smile. "So, you and Earth Boy, huh?"

"He isn't a bad guy. I figured I would give him a chance," she said with a small shrug.

"Yeah, he's a good man. Good luck tonight, then. No practice today; there are a few things I need to do."

XxX

"Tell Aunty that I said thank you. She really did help me get by in this time, and she taught me so much," Bec was saying. "And you, Ranma, thanks for helping me from the forest and after. I would have like to have learned magic from you, but I suppose we are too different. Bran will teach me."

Ranma smiled at her. "It was no problem. Good luck out there. Remember that you'll always have a home here if you want to come back, and we could always use your help."

Bec nodded. "I'll remember. Goodbye, Ranma."

She began to back away, turning to the small group standing around the portal that Beranabus had opened. The Japanese Disciple, Yuudai, was there for her, and they exchanged words, both smiling a bit too much. Ranma assumed that chemistry was beginning to form between them. At least Yuudai seemed nice enough, though Ranma admitted not knowing him at all.

Sheesh, seems everyone's finding someone lately.

Beranabus made eye contact with Ranma, and a moment passed between them. The gnarled man with his outrageous beard gave a small nod, while Ranma gestured towards Bec and said, "You better take care of her."

Also with them were fifteen strangers of varying gender and ages. Those Beranabus had found with the spark that he was trying to recruit into Disciples. Their training would take place in the Demonata universe, while on the search for the one behind the recent stirrings here. Ranma wondered how many would live through it.

"On a brighter side, that means fifteen less individuals that could be coerced into opening a portal here for demons to slip through," Nemesis said through the scythe, and her illusion appeared shortly after, standing beside him.

"May your efforts prove fruitful, Queen of Old. For the sake of us all," Beranabus said finally. He gestured Yuudai through the portal first, then the recruits and Bec to follow.

Crystal nodded. "And yours, Magician. For the same reason."

The old man cracked a smile, then shook his head and dropped his expression. He turned to Ranma, dark eyes glistening. "Do not let the localization to this one district fool you into false security. Whomever is behind this may try to cross outside, and you will miss it in your inattentiveness. Already, there are powerful stirrings of magic on an island four hundred miles south of here. You must learn to feel the ripples of such actions from your location."

He paused for a breath, then grunted. "Goodbye." He turned and entered the blue light, and the window closed behind him.

Nemesis turned, frowning southward. Ranma felt the power contained in his scythe stir, something that Nemesis was doing, and then her eyes widened. "Ranma, you must go. The power gathering there... if that is turned into another window, it will be large enough for a Demon Master to cross. Warn the others, Avatar. It's the mage."

Ranma didn't hesitate. "Crystal, we have trouble. It's the mage we've been missing; he's doing something big on that island. I'm taking everyone with me. You stay here with Galruk, in case they try to sidetrack us with more crossings."

The woman, looking like only a girl in her civilian garb, stared at him, concerned. "Ranma, how big is it?"

"Demon Master big." Frowning, he turned from where Beranabus and the others had vanished from to face the island – if he tried hard enough, he could feel the 'ripples,' as Beranabus called it. "We are going to need transportation."

XxX

Ranma shook his head to clear the disorientation, then mumbled, "We are renaming that, right now. At the very least, 'Senshi Teleport.'" There was a ripping sound immediately following, and Kresh was there too. The Guardian had gated.

The eight Senshi, Urgok, and Tuxedo Kamen – the chosen tag along who stood in the center, rather than Yuka – had arrived on a rocky, sun-bleached terrain, on what appeared to be the upper portion of a mountain jutting from the ocean. The mainland could be seen from one side of their position, more than a few miles off.

While he had learned magic, soldiering, and any number of things in his second life during the Silver Millennium, Ranma had remained true to many things from the first. Ki had been his magic then, auras and projectiles, martial arts and his trusty danger-sense. He had made sure to perfect the techniques he had learned then.

From that ledge, he could feel the auras of nearly a dozen individuals just down from their position. Quieting the others, he went to that side and peered down. Apparently the island had been a bunker from World War II, the entrance cut into the rock and going into the mountain itself, and standing around that entrance were men dressed in modern military uniforms and carrying automatic firearms.

For a moment, Ranma just stared, testing its possibility for an illusion of a movie set or deception. He found their stance too professional, too similar to the soldiers he had met. The crux of the shifting currents of magic he could feel, literally a vortex of energy even more potent than had been in the air during the Silver Millennium, was deep below the soldiers, inside the bunker. Feeling that was sobering, recalling its possibility.

"Nem, confirm to me that it's that mage in there. Please," he said, earning him a look from Setsuna. The woman still appeared peeved that he had pulled her and Endymion's reincarnate from their date, but she understood necessity.

Nemesis didn't bother with a distracting illusion. "He is here, at the heart of the energy. You cannot hesitate, Ranma."

"Lord Ranma, the spell is nearing its completion," Kresh muttered quietly as to not attract the guards' attention. "We must go now."

Tightening his hold over the scythe, Ranma nodded. Damn it all. These were men, not demons. He could kill them thoughtlessly if necessary, innocent or not, but these girls behind him, the Senshi dubbed the cutesy Sailor Scouts, they weren't ready to kill. Even soldiers had to train to willfully end another life.

I'm sorry. He moved so he was standing on the edge, obvious in the fading light, and snapped, "Magic ready! Move out!" He jumped.

It was a short fall for him, only twenty feet. The soldiers had heard his shout and turned, already aiming their weapons. Ranma cut the first in half with his fall, and magic made a weak dome in front of him right before he unleashed torrents of fire at the rest.

Fire. His most basic spell and something he had taught the Senshi on their first day of learning magic, and these soldiers died.

There was gunfire, loud bangs and clangs when a bullet bounced off his shield. The fire hissed. Men screamed. The heat defined the air, the stench of cooked meat following, and in mere seconds, it all ended. Ranma stopped the fire and lowered his shield, eyes sweeping for anyone that might have escaped, but instead he saw a rolling ball and faded memories had him leap back suddenly. The motion was slowed with his ring on, but he still escaped the explosion from the grenade.

Setsuna ended beside him, immune to the death of the soldiers. "How could this man have acquired Japanese GSDF? That doesn't make any sense."

"Were those- were those normal people?" a small voice asked behind them, one of the girls.

"Bad guys always have their minions and hirelings," Ranma grunted. "Why stop now? We need to move, dammit. Keep close!" He ran forward, into the bunker, magic at the ready. He knew they would follow. Questions and shattered innocence could come later.

It started with a long metal hall, doors lining the way. He focused on his senses, for people around him, and felt safe from an ambush. For a precaution, he removed the gravity ring, lightening his body significantly. The hallway ended in a stairwell, and Ranma began descending. He wasn't going at his best speed as he needed the others to keep up, but only Kresh ran with him.

The stairs ended in a small landing with more doors and several branching halls. It was filled with more gunmen. Together with Kresh, they used the vortex of magic to engage them. Fire could deplete the oxygen in the air, however, so they instead switched to messier methods: blades of air, ice, and simple weapons.

As he danced between the streams of bullets, Ranma realized that this was his first time ever encountering firearms in a fight. It was odd to think that despite his strength, his magic, being a Senshi, all his powerful allies like Nemesis and Crystal, and everything else, a bullet through the head would kill him as surely as an overwhelming magic-based spell or any other weapon he had faced before.

Technological weaponry, including even a simple handgun, had been banned from warfare back in the Silver Millennium. Battles were to be about the skill of the army and its soldiers, not engineers, so even when Saturn had first declared open war against the Solar System, before the Moon Kingdom, battles had been fought on the ground with melee weapons. War wasn't to be a video game, where soldiers sat safely behind screens on planets or ships far away while machines clashed and only money and materials were lost. Where ending a population could be as dispassionate as pushing a button.

The revolutionized military, of course, had been a contributing factor to the Moon Kingdom's loss against the Dark Moon, whom had employed missiles and aircraft. Not the sole cause, but it contributed.

When it came down to it, in the present, no matter how surreal it was to be dodging bullets rather than fists, blades, or spells, the vortex of magic, the thought of a crossing Demon Master, the mage – all of it remained focused in Ranma's mind, and he tore those in his way apart to get there.

One thing he did notice, however, was how different these soldiers were in reacting to their lost cause. Not despair. Not courageous heroism. Not with anything he had seen before. They simple pointed and fired and died, with no regard to their own lives or position. They showed none of the usual humanity one did, even in the pitch of a desperate fight.

It was like they were mindless drones or being controlled.

Already half of the soldiers were dead when the girls began to show up at the mouth of the stairs. Ranma didn't expect the guards' attention to switch to them, but he kept an eye out in case they needed a quick shield, even in the midst of the slaughter and confusion.

What must they be thinking, seeing a sweep of his blade and the red spurt of blood following, a man falling and screaming, or when Kresh moved a fist and a soldier's body suddenly crumpled inward, broken and mangled until it was too critical for him to live?

One of the soldiers near the back turned towards the girls at the stairs, and Ranma sent a spell imitating the Yamasenken at him. It would cleave him in half. Instead, the man shouted something Ranma didn't catch in the den of confusion and loud sounds, but when the soldier waved his hand, Ranma's spell stopped short, and abruptly a fork of blue lightning erupted towards the stairwell.

There was a girl's scream, barely audible in the gunfire and with the men's screams and groans. Ranma whirled to see a girl with aquamarine hair – Michiu then, Senshi Neptune – crumpled at the bottom of the stairs, with the others showing horrified faces. His attention was immediately back in the fight, but the image remained in his mind.

Lightning. The Senshi armor would protect her, as would her superhuman form, but... how powerful had it been? How long was she exposed to it? He couldn't remember, time seeming distorted as he dodged sprays of bullets and yet paused in the shock of encountering a mage hidden among the soldiers.

Ranma used a burst of speed to reach the mage, seeing the man already beginning another spell yet stopping when he noticed Ranma only inches from him. The man's expression grew to surprised, then fearful, but as his lips still moved, Ranma already had his scythe at his side, and he began cleaving him apart.

Finishing the swing and severing the man in half, Ranma turned his weapon and split the man from groin to head in a second blow before his two pieces could even fall away from each other – a precaution. Four wet chunks of meat and bone fell to the ground, blood pooling immediately.

Ranma had turned for the rest, but he saw the last fall after a quick slash from Kresh. The whole encounter had taken only seconds, perhaps twenty to thirty of them, yet for Michiru that was more than enough for a hidden magic-user to strike a crippling blow.

Without approaching those at the stairs, knowing how frightful he might appear when splattered in blood, he asked softly in the sudden silence, "How is she?"

"Not good," Senshi Pluto said, kneeled beside the girl. "She will live, but she lost consciousness. Unless you can heal something like this, she might need treatment at the h-" Setsuna's voice hitched, and she rocked back from Michiru.

Ranma frowned, taking a step towards her – recalling instantly the threat still below them. "Setsuna, what's wrong?"

The others had finished coming down now, huddled around the injured girl. Setsuna, however, shook her head after a silent moment. "Send them back up."

"What? Setsuna, what is it? We need to move!"

She looked at him, eyes wide enough for him to see the whites. "They can't continue. All of you, go back up. Ranma, we will go on without them. They need to go back up!"

Bewildered, Ranma asked, "Setsuna, why? If this is what we think it is, I'm going to need all of them! What's the matter with you?"

"We can't risk another getting h- Behind you!"

Ranma felt it before her cry, several presences coming behind him from the doors. He swirled in place, calling up a shield to stop the inevitable gunfire. It came and was stopped, and as Ranma expected, one of the ambushers made motions suspicious of being another hidden mage.

The many shifting currents around him blinded him to specifics of who and when someone was casting.

However, the ground began splitting in a straight line for him, and Ranma used magic to stop the attack – whatever it might be. The split halted abruptly, a yawning opening into the earth stretching from the doorway. Ranma prepared to kill him, but too late he realized that there wasn't just one mage hidden there.

There was no scream, just a sickening thump from behind him. Someone gasped, and then there was a sound of a body hitting the floor.

"CHAOS BOLT!" Ranma shouted, furious. He quickly killed off his emotions, however, forcing away the rage, then followed with, "Moko Takabisha: Apathetic Edition." A white orb of ki followed the black Senshi attack.

Ranma didn't yet know what either would do to an average person, with no magical or intense physical training, but the attacks met the small group of attackers just before Kresh did. He knew that either way they wouldn't escape with their lives.

He turned again to the stairwell to see a sickening sight. Senshi Mercury was on the ground, face first – meaning her nose had been crushed in the fall – with a wound gushing blood from the back of her head. Already blood was pooling around her.

In a flash he was too her, with a hand over the surely fatal wound. He healed it, sealing the fractured skull fragments and closing the skin, but the soft tissue and her lifeless state he couldn't help. She still breathed, but head wounds... "Hotaru, do what you can for these two. The rest of you, keep moving."

He stood, then moved down the right hall. At the entryway, he turned to see only Setsuna had risen. The woman looked too shaken up, more so than Ranma had ever seen before – and he had seen her through the hardest of times before. The rest were in a numb shock, staring at their two downed friends.

Damn it all.

"Let's go Kresh."

They went.

XxX

At the final door before the room holding the crux of all the powerful magic swirling around them, Ranma and Kresh paused for only a moment to prepare themselves. The demon shook his head, however. "We are too late. Three seconds, Lord Ranma."

He only just finished speaking when Ranma ripped open the metal door, bending its hinges, and as he did all the magic around them vanished in an instant, drawing into the room. All that thick, potent magic, called back into one purpose, for one spell, and Ranma witnessed with a racing heart a silhouette standing before a soft blue light that slowly spread wider and wider, finally ending when its sides touched side to side of the room.

Nearly immediately, magic returned to the area. Unlike the other windows that had opened, the magic was thick, spreading far. He could immediately tell the difference with this portal, why Nemesis had said a Demon Master could cross through with it. How had this mage accomplished such a powerful portal so fast when Terra was nearly dry?

Ranma and Kresh charged in, nearly recklessly as they wouldn't have much time to respond to traps. Ranma didn't care, knowing he needed to kill the one who opened it if he was to close it again before something could cross.

A rich voice laughed. "You are too late, Ranma Uzuki-Saotome. This is the end of your world! The end of you!"

"Bastard!" Ranma shouted, slicing where the man was standing. He felt his scythe come in contact with nothing, and the shape of the man vanished.

The man, recognizable as the same one who got away when he had killed One, laughed again, this time amused. "How terribly cliché was my taunt! Tis it not the very thing any villain shouts before he is unexpectedly defeated by the hero?"

Ranma stood with Kresh, looking around. He couldn't feel the aura of the mage, and by Kresh's inactivity, that meant he couldn't trace the man either. He wondered at the man's name, what number it might be if he was one of the twelve.

Considering the man seemed to enjoy talking, Ranma – standing before the light of the sickening window, humming its warning-drone – called out cautiously, "Who are you?"

"Who am I indeed," the man said, and a face appeared from one of the walls. The room was metal, bigger than expected for a military bunker, and the light from the window allowed no room for shadows. Yet, the man's face pealed out of the metal, hat included, and he grinned. "I am a day over two thousand and yet I still ask myself that very question."

Kresh's scimitar imbedded directly into the face, too fast for him to perceive the throw and dodge. There was no blood, and the mage didn't budge. He even continued speaking. "Now, now, hasty demon. I didn't finish." The face sank in, then reappeared next to the blade. "You may call me Eleven. How do you do!"

Ranma spun, and his scythe met a slender rapier. What the hell? Illusions? The opponent blade had no wielder, and as Ranma forced it away in a powerful stroke, the metal clattered to the metal floor and vanished when it contacted the wall.

Still the portal hummed, an ever-reminding presence. At any moment a Demon Master could- would be trying to slip through. If that happened, they were dead. The Senshi were dead. Earth, its inhabitants, everything. Dead.

Ranma was reminded of the Moon Kingdom's fall, when the kingdom was in ashes and half the planets already purged. Every moment delayed meant a moment where another planet died, a moment when he could have been elsewhere stopping the enemy. He remembered Venus, fighting a man called Plague. Hidden in the shadows, the planet dying of that deadly gas, super heating, the man playing deadly games with him.

Presently, Ranma was full to the brim with magic, his body tingling in an almost painful way as it ate away at him. The human body wasn't meant to be a battery. However, he was ready to use it. He called it all out, black energy beginning to swirl around him. Nemesis's magic in its raw state, but so much at once.

"Where is he?" he asked quietly, ready to blast the man apart. The voice laughed again, mockingly. Ranma deflected another blade, this time a sabre.

However, the question wasn't rhetorical. "Avatar, let me show you what I see."

The world shifted suddenly. Color drained away to blacks and whites – yet it did not. Ranma could see through walls, blurred shapes behind shapes behind shapes. He could tell from clarity how close something was in the silvery vision. Yet, his normal sight was there, blue portal and painted tan walls. The metallic floor. Both, at the same time, like looking through a different lens for either eye.

With this sudden change, Ranma noticed something adjacent to him on the back right. A man shape, creeping steadily, the head-shape facing him always. It's jaw moved when the voice spoke. Ranma resisted a smirk. Gotcha.

He whirled, and all the magic around him turned into a superheated pillar of flame that hit right on target. Kresh saw his target and followed with blasts of spells Ranma couldn't identify, yet the metal walls exploded, causing a ruckus. The potent magic around them made such powerful spells easy.

Against the brightness of his own spell, Ranma was forced to close his eyes, yet the silver vision remained. He saw that the man had dodged – barely – and shifted the pillar of flame to him. There was a crackling sound, and Ranma could see a shield splitting the pillar. Kresh's blasts followed, and the shield burst. The voice around them cursed abruptly.

Ranma hit dry, yet he mechanically switched to that in the air. A bolt of lightning went for the man, and he saw the mage deflect it with a hand. A chunk of metal from the wall ripped off and slammed into him. Eleven was knocked off his feet and into a wall, and while it moved him from Kresh's spell, he seemed slumped.

The man stirred then, and he shouted a spell. Ranma's danger sense flared, warning him of something to his immediate right – where Kresh was – and he just barely dodged a spear thrust. His eyes widened when he saw Kresh standing there, animal-eyes vacant. "Kresh, wha-"

The demon lunged, and Ranma deflected the spear away again. Calling forward a wave of raw magic, Ranma knocked Kresh back. Immediately he found that a bad idea as the metal floor shattered into fragments, and those swirled into a metal frenzy around him, trying to sheer him to pieces.

Desperately reaching out for the magic around him to respond, Ranma made his intent something to stop the pieces. There was a burst of a cocoon of magic around him, and the pieces went flying away. Ranma's hand went to the tattoo on his shoulder. "You would try and attack your master!"

He called upon the symbol of his hold over the Urgoks, feeling his power of them, and he felt the link between him and Kresh. Something was on it, subtle yet fragile when compared to his hold over them. He snapped away the corrupted presence, that dark taint, and immediately Kresh stopped his assault.

However, the strain appeared to have weakened the demon, and Ranma watched Kresh teeter to the side before dropping his weapon and falling to his knees. Nearly growling, Ranma used Nemesis's sight to find the mage again. The man was on the other side of the window.

Ranma used magic to influence the floor there, and the grating bent in a sudden wave that took the mage from his feet. Eleven fell to the ground. Using Two as an example, Ranma also tried to have the ground swallow him whole, yet the man sealed the rift closed with a spell and was dodging to the side.

Putting his hands together again, Ranma called upon more of Nemesis's magic and gathered the energies for a Fubuki Sousou. Eleven, visible only to Nemesis's sight, was again on this side of the window. His features appeared to be... grinning. Ranma thrust his spell at him, the snowy orb now a blazing light of energy to Nemesis.

Eleven dodged to the side, but even so, he was caught in the explosion of the spell, and his body flew into a metal wall again. He didn't move.

Ranma checked the portal to see if they were done yet. Instead of the sides shrinking, however, he noticed something happening at the center of it. A dark shape broke through, only the beginning of a larger demon. Cursing, Ranma threw a second Fubuki Sousou, and it hit the demon square in the chest.

There was a squealing laughter, chillingly familiar to more faded memories. The fatigue of using that move twice so fast strained Ranma, but he saw a remarkable blast of magic – that powerful only because so much was leaking through the air – slam into the demon enough to send marginally into the portal. Part of it was still through.

Kresh was still downed, and he shook his demon head, lowering his arm. "I... can... do no... more."

Ranma sent a jet of flames at the downed Eleven, hoping it might close the portal, but the man jumped to his feet suddenly, and his spell canceled the flames. He moved towards the window, where the Demon Master was still inching through.

Despair settled in Ranma when the aura of the master reached him. There was no denying that it was a Demon Master then. Ranma had felt such power before. While the Greater Demonata he had faced before made small waves of magic pulse outwards, overwhelming tsunamis reached him. If they were any part physical, he would have to strain himself to remain standing against such powerful rolling waves.

That was, in Demonata terms, no more than the Demon Master's "exhales." The rest was so much more.

It was too soon to make out the identity of the approaching enemy, perhaps their Big Bad or perhaps only a key figure, but already it was much too late.

Nemesis... What do I do? What can I do!

He was alone now, the last of them left to face this threat. Ranma wanted to close his eyes until it was over, but already his body was itching for the fight. His grip on the scythe was tight, his muscles coiled, his stance ready. He knew already that he would fight to the very end. Queen Serenity's Ginzuisho was the only way they could win. However, he was far from defenseless.

Beranabus said that they can be fought, if done right. The key was the magic... its heavier. Dammit, we are still on this side! Ranma stopped hesitating. It was do or die.

"FUBUKI SOUSOU DOUBLE!" he shouted, thrusting both hands forward and barely managing to get the combination of ki, negative ki, and magic out in two separate attacks.

The two orbs were bigger than usual, a testament to the power Ranma was putting behind them, and even Eleven seemed startled by the attack, his eyes widening as they shot for the master. Two dark forms burst through the window on either side of the slowly approaching shape, however, both looking like almost dogs with their bent shapes, and they intercepted the attack.

The explosions whipped frosty air through the room, and frozen pieces of the demons went everywhere. A third followed the first too, and Ranma noticed the shapes were the Greater Demonata that seemed to trail the mages – of the New Batch. The white furred demon glared at him coldly.

Do or die.

Ranma shot forward, and his scythe was in its stomach even before it could form its own scythe. The demon tried wrenching itself back, arm already coming up to swat him away in a quick and powerful blow. It hit him, but not before Ranma could invoke a spell inside its body that sent the demon into a sudden convulsion. It's chest bloated, then burst in a spray of guts and blood. Lava ate the pieces away.

Tapping into the potent magic of the air, Ranma brought as much together as he could handle mentally, trying to compress it before him, then compressing that again so that it was condensed, even heavier, and nearly solid even in its raw state. His exhausted body trembled with effort, but then Ranma sent the spell hurtling towards the Demon Master, now half out, a thin arm pointed at him.

Green light formed before the master, halting the spell, yet Ranma's efforts proved fruitful. The density of his shoved through the Demon Master's, and the demon grunted as it was forced back into the window a measure.

"You will not succeed, Ranma!" Eleven shouted, throwing a spell. Lightning followed.

Ranma avoided it easy enough, but apparently the Demon Master was still far enough for its own attacks. Ranma was still moving – faster than an untrained human eye could properly follow – when a clear splattering of liquid slammed into him. The globs slapped onto him like wads of hot glue or wax, burning even as they clung, yet the force behind them wasn't slowed upon contact, and Ranma found himself thrown back and into the metal wall.

The plates of his Senshi armor protected him, leaving a huge impression in the wall. Even with his weight, the force had still countered his and taken him from his feet. He popped himself out, intending to land on his feet, but suddenly a second spell followed, and Ranma felt his neck break as it hit the side of his head, whipping his head to the side without the body.

Though disoriented from the blow, Ranma unconsciously healed the damage as it happened – perhaps Nemesis was at work there – and he felt his neck snap into proper shape without his influence. Still, that – had – hurt.

Ranma rolled under the next spell, reaching for magic from either side of the room and drawing it together, then throwing it at the Demon Master. He sent a strip of metal from the ground and towards Eleven like a spear, the force behind it unbelievably fast. The surprise attack was successful, impaling the man into the wall even as the Demon Master was forced back another inch, grunting again.

Eleven gasped, hands coming to the metal. The rigid, thin arm of the master pointed at the man, however, and before Ranma could realize it, the metal strip was glancing off his breastplate. A deep gouge was left in the armor. In black copper. Eleven fell to the floor, but his hands came away from his wound without blood, likely healed from the master as well.

"Fuck this!" Ranma shouted. He couldn't even fight on one front, let alone two. He didn't stop his manipulation of the heavy magic around him, pulling it together and unleashing it at the Demon Master. He also sent staggering blasts at Eleven.

For a moment, Ranma gained a lead. His quick, powerful blasts halted the Demon Master, and Eleven was sent bouncing around the room, his body a rag doll living through its torment only due to the Demon Master's efforts – hopefully distracting it even partially from the main fight. Eleven blocked some of the attacks, but he didn't have time for anything meaningful enough to match Ranma's.

Everything changed when the Demon Master gave a loud snort. All the metal of the room bent outward in a sudden burst – walls curved out, the floor sinking down – as if a cylindrical force shoved through, overwhelming the thick metal. Ranma immediately found why, slamming against the far wall as crushing pressure hit him.

It was a dozen times worse than what Crystal had done to him to defeat him when he had worked for Metaria. Ranma felt his organs flattening, his metal bending. Even the shaft of the scythe in his hand was cutting into his palm, cutting off circulation even as it threatened to crack his bones. He felt like his head might pop like a balloon against this.

"OH, NO YOU DON'T! YA SMELLY PORKER!" a voice bellowed.

Ranma's vision was too distorted to make out details. There was a flash... of some color he couldn't make out. Then his vision blackened entirely for a few moments. When the blurry world returned, he was on his hands and knees on the warped metal floor, free of the Demon Master's spell. He blacked out again, and then the room was dark, no longer with the blue window.

A grinning face.

An offered hand, with lumpy joints.

Two stones lying side by side.

Another black out.

XxX

"When you are standing in the hospital after two friends are brought to the very brink of death."

Setsuna sighed, rising from her chair. How she hated that Crystal Tokyo, that shade of herself that instigated it and planted these awful seeds. Michiru and Ami were still unconscious – deep in coma, the doctors had said, with no sign of coming out any time soon. Michiru had been fried, the electrochemical firings of her brain going haywire during the lightning attack in a manner similar to a seizure while leaving damage behind.

Ami had been clouted in a fatal way. The doctors said that considering the internal damage to the occipital lobe, she should have been dead – bled out with a cracked skull to get that kind of injury. Somehow – a miracle – the damage was strictly internal, and she may recover. If she did, her sight was at risk.

Setsuna wanted to consider that Queen Meioh was only playing mind games with her, warning her of the things she knew would happen as a way of convincing her towards that future. Nearly fifty percent was that future, and nearly fifty percent was unavoidable destruction. If there was some way out, some other path the letter was trying for, Setsuna was afraid it might be too narrow for her to ever consider it. She didn't want to give up, but already a cookie-cut victory had been laid out for her, at the small price of a river of blood and treachery.

She still couldn't see a world without Ranma in it, not now that she had him back. If her heart was destined for Mamoru, they would certainly have a shaky start. Their date hadn't been particularly eye-opening. The man was still in mourning over Usagi.

Touching Michiru's shoulder, Setsuna's mind fell back to the bunker. Even she had been able to feel the currents of magic around them, powerful as it was. Flashes of the slaughter of Ranma cutting through the soldiers, the horror when the lightning was approaching them and her not ready to defend against it. Michiru going down. Ami going down. Ranma coming back, unconscious, slung over a stranger's shoulder.

What happened? How could we have been so outmatched, so unprepared? She sat on the hospital bed, gently stroking Michiru's hair as her thoughts turned. It was good that Haruka was gone. She would be beside herself in grief and rage at the moment.

Sighing, Setsuna stood from the bed. She wished both girls luck, hoping it would get across to them, then left the room. Ranma was waiting for her in the hall, and they walked together. He had that ridiculous bag over his shoulder again, hiding his scythe.

"And you don't find it the least suspicious that while you – you, Ranma – are getting tossed around by the Demon Master, some average human comes and stops it?" Setsuna asked finally, already feeling the beginnings of a migraine.

"Of course I do," he said. "It's why I have Kresh sitting on him. This guy is nearly insane."

Setsuna shivered, remembering the reason the Urgok wasn't with them. Two small lodestones had been found, which had made the whole Demon Master window possible. One had been given to Kresh, so he no longer had to remain glued to Ranma's side, while the other... The next part of her letter was coming up.

Setsuna didn't know what lodestones were, but she knew what they did. They looked no different than any other stone, especially these two nondescript grey rocks, but both produced magic to extents Setsuna had never seen. Like what Ranma's scythe, Nemesis's new body, did, except a dozen times stronger each.

"Ranma, that other lodestone," she started, but Ranma smiled suddenly.

"I know. I can use it to destroy the barrier. Terra will still be too weak for anyone to capitalize on her recovering magic, so all we do is save the planet – literally, from a different threat. Nemesis agrees that we have the juice for it."

Setsuna knew that without the letter, she'd have no idea what to say to this proposal. In fact, even with the letter, she still didn't know a thing about it, but she trusted herself. "You can't."

Ranma looked at her, frowning. "Setsuna, what's been with you? At that bunker first you were saying that the girls couldn't go on just because two were injured, now you are saying that I can't do this? Why would I not stop the crippling forcing holding Terra captive and bleeding her life away?"

"I wanted you to stop before the second was hospitalized," she said quietly, then shook her head. "Ranma, if the barrier is destroyed, it results in destruction as surely as leaving it in its present state. The only option I've come up with is if we alter it, change the barrier in some way that won't kill us while also allowing Earth to begin recovering."

Terra. Ranma said he had met the sentience of Earth, a second planetary being like Nemesis. There had always been rumors of Terra being out there, but Setsuna had never in her many thousands of years seen her or any trace of her. She would almost doubt his word if she didn't know him and all the bizarre things that could happen to and near him. The Chaos Generator.

He frowned at her words now, one hand coming to the strap of his bag. "I'll discuss it with Nemesis and maybe Terra if we encounter her again. I don't see how there could be any short-term effects of destroying the barrier, but you've given good advice before."

She smiled slightly. "It's a barrier, Ranma. Destroy it, and it no longer keeps out whatever it was meant to."

He blinked in surprise, then laughed. "Quit making me look like an idiot."

They exited the hospital.

XxX

The man appeared in his mid-twenties, black hair cut short, skin smooth and lightly tanned, his eyes a bright green not commonly found among the Japanese. His build was lean, stringy almost, while he was quite short for a male. The features of his face were rounded, but his brow line and nose were sharp, stern, even while his mouth and jaw seemed full and jolly. An odd looking fellow.

"What's your name?" Ranma asked, crossing his arms.

It was the man that had supposedly helped him out against the Demon Master. He smiled at Ranma. "Keyzak."

Crystal was there, as was Kresh, Setsuna, Yuka, and little Hotaru. They didn't want to hold the questioning at Setsuna's house, and each had returned to their Senshi forms after leaving the hospital. Despite his apparent good intentions, none of them trusted this man. Still in the dead of night, they were at the park.

"Who are you?" Ranma continued. The man seemed honest enough, nothing untrustworthy in his expression, yet how could a random man, experienced in magic, stumble across Ranma's fight at the crucial moment without the others noticing him pass when they were at the staircase. He couldn't be Beranabus', since the man only had Yuudai in Japan. Not to mention, Eleven had a skill in controlling minds, and he wasn't above taking those who could use magic.

Keyzak leaned back, still smiling. "A survivor. The kind that will do nearly anything to survive. Unfortunately, I've picked up a bit of a paranoia as well, but it's what's kept me around this long, so I don't think I can complain."

Ranma paused his next question, instead wanting him to expand. "And what have you needed to survive?"

The man's smile widened, and he now leaned forward, eyes twinkling. "I know who you are, Senshi. I'm either crazier than I thought, or you are the Senshi of Nemesis, and Pluto, and Saturn, and you, darling, are the Queen herself, in an outfit not at all befitting. Or at least, you all bear an uncanny resemblance. Memory tends to distort over the years, you know."

"A survivor of the Moon Kingdom," Crystal breathed in realization.

Ranma frowned, considering Feyri and Saffron. "What planet?"

"Why, Earth, of course," he said. "Terrible times here when the Kingdom fell, you know. The nobility were assassinated, the states shattered, unity fell into calamity. The Confusion, as I call it it, when everyone was fighting everyone while drifters and survivors like myself tried to stay low enough to avoid being caught in the crossfire. Then the barbarians, biggest horde I have ever seen, which swept away the civilized and destroyed as much technology as they could. Led by revolutionists tired of the anarchy, tired of those that could lord luxurious tech over others, and... some other reasons, I don't very well remember now."

Ranma looked to the others, and Setsuna shrugged a shoulder. "It is similar to how I remember the following years."

Turning to the man again, seeing him still grinning, Ranma said, "Alright, Keyzak, how did you stop that Demon Master? There is no way you should have had the strength."

"Stop him? No, no, no. Can't stop one of those, no sir. Sire. My lord? Bah, been too long. No, you see, I simply snip, snipped the spell holding that window open, and then he had to choose to finish crossing and die without magic or go back. A rather cowardly move if I say so myself, since I would never quite actually risk myself if I wasn't sure I could get away."

Ranma stared at him, checking for deception. The situation could have been staged by Eleven and his master, set for infiltration into their ranks. However, the Master was only moments from crossing. It would have made more sense to simply finish, if the destruction of mankind was its goal. Perhaps something else then?

He didn't want to consider that, but he needed to speak with Nemesis about its possibility.

"And what do you want, then?" Ranma asked.

Keyzak tilted his head side to side. "I don't quite know, you know? I saw on the telly news about the Senshi- excuse me, the 'Sailor Scouts,' and thought I had finally hit the bottom of the deep end. But time passed and others confirmed, who I very well thought were hallucinations at first, and slowly I allowed myself to believe. Best hallucination of my life, you know?

"Anyways, I felt the good old 'stirrings of trouble' down south and made my way on over, figuring, well, I like these more peaceful days, and a Demon Master coming out here would just put a damper on my whole survivability. And so when I saw you in a spot, I did my thing and ran out, then came back to see if we won. We did, eh?"

Ranma looked to Crystal, who shook her head. She stepped towards the man. "We thank you, Keyzak, for the help. We ask that you go home now and don't seek us out again. I hope it doesn't offend you, but we are-"

"Oh, no, no, no. My Queen," he interrupted, throwing a salute across his chest at the title. It wasn't proper form, the arm crooked from the normal horizontal. Setsuna shifted in place at it. "-forgive me, my Queen, but I hope to never come across you again. You're the guardians, I'm the guarded. I don't want any fights. Risking my life is a bit of a no at this point, ya know?"

"I see. Well then, we bid you good night and farewell. Thank you again, Keyzak," she finished, and the man jumped to his feet, nearly startling them. He performed another off-salute, this time punctuated with a short bow, then he scurried off. There was a sound like a giggle from him as he vanished.

Ranma stared after him. "Now there's a man I'd sleep much sounder if he were dead."

"You wouldn't have the ability to do much sleeping if he hadn't come in the first place, however," Crystal said, taking the man's place in the chair.

"Which is what worries me the most," Setsuna said from her place. "I don't know how much we can trust of him. He could be another of the twelve mages or a pet of Eleven, by what Ranma said of him. Perhaps it wouldn't be safe to let him go."

Crystal tilted her head back and closed her eyes, sighing. "Ethical jargon; it's only right that a hero be given the benefit of the doubt, something, something, cruel if we were to condemn him on suspicion after heroism. Can't rightfully stop him."

Ranma reached for his scythe. "I can."

Crystal opened her eyes, smiling tiredly at him. "I ask that you don't. Now, your suspicions earlier were correct. There were two attempts at crossings out here. Galruk and I stopped them both, but it was not a fun occasion."

Ranma nodded. "Thank you for staying. Next time, though, I will need you with me." He paused. "Crystal, I'm sure you've heard about Mercury and Neptune by now. Could you...?"

The silver haired woman lifted her Ginzuisho. "I'll see to them tonight before I retire."

He smiled at her, then turned to Setsuna. "Sorry about your date tonight. Next time should go better." He wondered how heartfelt his apology was.

The woman smiled at him, then shook her head. "It's no matter. This was obviously much more important... and I doubt anything will come of the Terran Prince and I." Anything to separate her further from Crystal Tokyo. "I only wish I was more useful there. I... don't know why I froze up at the end."

"It's fine." He addressed the room and held up a rock in his left hand, plain grey and the size of a human head. "Now, this. The second lodestone. I'm going to hold onto it for now. It'll be a little power boost, but mainly Nemesis and I are going to work out a way to alter the barrier surrounding Earth. Also, tonight, I'm calling back Xycell and Haruka. I need another Urgok."

"Ran-" Setsuna started to say, but she cut off when Crystal spoke at the same time, asking, "What about the training?"

"There will be another break tomorrow, just so the girls have some time to get over this. But Crystal, I need you to keep working on crafting those spells. Today a Demon Master almost crossed, and he smeared me across the floor. We need something that can stop Big Bad."

She nodded. Setsuna spoke then, softer, "Ranma, after the barrier... you need to destroy the second lodestone."

He looked at her, raising an eyebrow. "Why?" Setsuna merely pulled out the letter and gestured towards it. Ranma, however, shook his head. "But why? This is a benefit to our side, not theirs. Destroying it only takes away our advantage, and we need every one of those. Unless you can actually give me a reason, Setsuna, I'm holding onto this."

"Sometimes it isn't explicitly obvious, Ranma, but I trust that Setsuna to do and say what she thinks is best for us," Crystal put in. "I don't yet see a reason for it myself, but circumstances can change in time, and that is her domain."

Ranma bounced it in his hand. "Well, forgive me for being stubborn, but until those circumstances change, I'm holding onto this. With this I can access magic as powerful as what I get from Nemesis, without the drawbacks. What the girls are calling the 'sickness.' It's no Ginzuisho, but it'll get me by just the same."

Setsuna felt frustrated by his choice, but she couldn't fault him. She also remembered him with his disabled hand; they wouldn't win this argument here. You damnable man. Don't be wrong.

XxX

"After only a couple of months, honored guest already can move so easy in training ground, even with all his weights on. Outside room, your eyes and mind have adjusted to new speed. You have beaten me, and I deem your training here finished. Now, your oath?" Urtec intoned, bruised and battered as they sat at the dining room table inside the Terran Palace.

Ryoga, also battered, smirked – one fang peaking out. Like it'll ever happen. I have you beat now, Ranma. "To serve the Serenity line if ever called upon to do so. To defend the Queen and follow her orders. To uphold the Kingdom in the ways I see best."

"Then honored guest may go in peace, and may he find much joy and honor in life following." The monk smiled, leaning back with his cup of tea in hand. He lifted the cup. "To a friend."

Ryoga tapped his cup against his. "Kanpai."

He was coming back now, a whole lot stronger and ready to take on the new Ranma. His rival wouldn't even see it coming. His speed would make sure of that.

XxX

"Lykaios, go!" a woman shouted, falling to her knees after fleeing through the portal. Cuts and wounds littered her face and form, one arm twisted unnaturally.

A man followed her out, literally flying in a reckless dive that had him tumbling onto the asphalt. He wore armor, but his arms were scraped into worse condition than he already was. Immediately the woman thrust her working hand at the window, sealing it shut again. As it was still closing, however, a roaring demon shot out at her, unnaturally large fangs gnashing as they went for her face.

The woman gave a cry and called upon magic, swatting it from the air in a small blast of air. The demon landed and whirled towards her, but a dagger suddenly blossomed in its forehead. It squealed loudly, but a second followed, and a third. "I'm out," the man called, his exhaustion evident in his voice.

It was enough though, and the demon gave a death-whimper before collapsing, tongue lolling out of its mouth. The woman and the man both panted, noticing the dark of night, the stars of the human universe. The buildings around them were of human make, innocent and harmless. They had made it back alive.

The man laughed, but it was a bitter sound. Finishing up, he asked, "What now, Athena?"

The woman shook black hair from her dark eyes and looked down at her ruined elbow. "We can't take him by ourselves. That much is obvious. Remember the man here I pointed out before?"

"The one you called Reaper?" Lykaios asked.

Athena smiled, the gesture not diminishing the hardness of her face. "We are going to meet him."


AN: I've got this odd feeling "posting against my better judgment" is going to become a reoccurring theme for the rest of the story. But... finishing this damn chapter makes me too eager to just wait around for more. Was halfway through this chapter before I got a little discouraged and sorta left this story alone and now only recently came back to finish it.

Ja, the story is picking up now. You know, it was the oddest thing making the setting of the 'climax' of the chapter away from Juuban, like it was wrong to do so, but... that doesn't even make sense. Honestly, no logically thinking enemy with access to distant locations would confine him/herself to such an easily countered location as the heroes' home base...

Anyways, I apologize for the long wait. 43k word chapter for you. I should be back in this now. Hopefully.

-Sub