Author's Forward – As I said last chapter, my queue is exhausted. The chapter 12 draft is 25% complete. As such, I am formally declaring that I will miss the February release date. For now, the next release is target April. My overall goal is to finish both chapter 12 and the epilogue then release them both at that time. However, knowing my habits, I can only guarantee one chapter.

Beta reader: obsidian_fox

-oOo-

Chapter 11: Tactics

-oOo-

"Attention, please," Setsuna called.

Rumbling voices vanished into isolated chatter. Syaoran and his wife fell silent. They turned their eyes up front. Chiyo remained lounged in the couch, paying no attention to Setsuna. Her horde of servants politely waited.

Crash! My head jerked to the back of the room. A plywood board had tumbled to the ground. Fumio stood over Neptune, a jagged spear of ice in hand. The aqua haired girl had fallen on her butt. Uranus stomped forward, her face a boiling sea of rage.

I tensed, ready to stop the violence that was brewing.

Tuxedo stepped in. With cane and top hat, Chiba separated Fumio from the others. The dark haired boy allowed himself to be dragged to a faraway seat, his eyes glaring daggers of hate at every girl in the room.

Hikaru settled into the steel folding chair beside me. A lazy arm dangled over the back. "Crazy, isn't it?" he said, nodding at the disrupted fight.

I snorted. "I've seen worse."

"Attention, please," Setsuna called again, unperturbed.

Of the ragtag band, only Konatsu and Ukyou were missing. I searched the room and found the ninja. He was crouched upon a support beam, hidden in the shadows. Ukyou was more visible. She worked at a hurried pace from behind her portable grill. Two unfinished okonomiyaki sizzled on the heated metal.

"Give me a minute and I'll be done," Ukyou apologized.

"There is no need, Kounji-san," Setsuna said. "I trust that you will be mindful." Her ruby eyes raked the crowd. "Now that everyone is here, let us begin."

Quiet fell upon the warehouse. Shiiing. Steel rang when Ukyou flipped a patty.

"The reason for this meeting is simple. Gondul is dead. Chiyo has defected. Gungnir is ours," Setsuna proclaimed.

"Gungnir is mine," I growled. I tapped the spear against the ground in emphasis.

"As you say, Ranma-kun," Setsuna resumed, smoothly. "I did not wish to dispute your claim. My point is merely that the Institute is vulnerable."

The crowd murmured. Sakura glanced in my direction before whispering to Syaoran. Ukyou stopped in her work, suddenly attentive. Even Hikaru's stance changed. The sandy haired blond sat up straight. The shock was greater the older they were. Many of those here had fought against the Institute for years. The dream of victory had died long ago.

A tiny smile crossed Setsuna's lips. "Of course, Director Silvervine has no intention of giving us the first move. Late last night, she sent forty of her girls to destroy the wards maintaining her prison. The meager defenses left by Atlantis held for an hour. As of now, the wards have failed."

The room froze. "Shit!" Hikaru's curse reigned over the silence. "We're screwed. Oh man are we screwed."

I glanced from side to side as the room began to rumble. Hushed voices spoke sharp words. Some, like Hikaru, understood. Many did not.

"You know, some of us are new," I said, loudly. I swung my eyes across the group. "So, how about clearing things up?"

"Wisely noted, Ranma-kun," Setsuna said. "While Artemis's condition is general knowledge, I have yet to share the details of her imprisonment."

The green haired woman closed her eyes and searched for the start of the story. "As I have stated before, the Director of the Pretty Princess Institute, Artemis Serenity Silvervine, does not reside within her palace by choice. The Institute is her prison. She was placed there at the command of her niece, Serenity the VI, for the crime of treason. There she has remained for millennia."

"Millennia," Syaoran repeated. "Pardon my interruption, but, if the seal held so long, why would it fail now?"

"A reasonable question, and an important one," Setsuna commented. "The answer, sadly, is simple. Artemis's prison has always been vulnerable. That is not to say the defenses were not thorough. Indeed, they were extreme. Where one generator would suffice, the atlantians used three. They then hid those generators within sealed space. Alas, Atlantis made but one fatal assumption: their continued existence. Without the atlantian army, there is little to protect the generators themselves.

"To put things clearly, the wards have stood this long because Artemis has had no reason to tear them down. That fact has changed, thanks to Ranma-kun and Chiyo-chan," Setsuna's eyes floated to me. "Today, Artemis feels threatened. Without the support of her handmaiden, Gondul, she lacks an invincible spear. She fears that we will bleed her dry. As such, she seeks maneuverability."

"Leaving us shit out of luck," Hikaru added. "The Director isn't going to play queen of the castle anymore. She's going to come out and beat the shit out of us, personally."

"You are correct, Hikaru-kun," Setsuna said politely. "Though your concern is premature. In addition to the three primary generators, Atlantis built a fourth. Unfortunately, it is too weak to sustain Artemis's wards on its own. It will, however, keep her prison intact for another seventy-two hours."

"Paranoid, much?" I muttered under my breath.

Hikaru snorted. "And what gave you that impression? Generator one, two, three, or four?"

"Atlantis took Artemis's imprisonment very seriously," Setsuna interrupted. Her eyes flashed across us, intolerant of our interruption. "It is difficult to fault them, given the nature of her crime."

I raised a brow. "And what crime was that?"

"Attempted genocide," Setsuna replied. "I believe you are already familiar with the details, Ranma-kun."

Disgust colored my face. Planetary Tenki. A thousand years had changed nothing. Artemis's single mindedness exceeded obsession. It was chilling. Whatever humor I might have drawn from the thought was dwarfed by the certainty of her intent.

A woman who could hold a grudge for millennia would hold it forever.

"They should have killed her," I spat. The virulence of my tone surprised me.

"Yes. That would have been the preferred outcome," Setsuna agreed. "Alas, politics interfered. Now-"

"Politics?" I interjected. "Are you kidding me?"

Setsuna's ruby eyes narrowed on mine. Her face was granite. Her harsh words revealed buried emotion. "No, Ranma-kun, I am not kidding. Artemis was a war hero. The battles she won earned her the love of millions. Her blood gave her station. In terms of power, hers was considered second only to the Queen's. So great was Artemis's following that her proud confession evoked cheers at her murderous courage.

"It was all we could do to have her imprisoned. The Council of Peers was aligned behind Artemis. They were set to declare her innocent of all charges. Even the Queen's advisors hesitated, fearing the state would fracture. It was a testament to Serenity's mettle that she broke the deadlock. Against great protest, she evoked royal privilege and declared Artemis a traitor.

"And so Artemis was placed in prison. There, too, she was treated kindly. The Council forced us to offer amenities. Instead of a cell, Artemis received a palace on the planet of the people she sought to destroy," Setsuna said. The bitterness of her words lashed across the room. "The Terrans never forgave us that. Our fate was set in stone. Artemis sought to nip the war in its bud. Instead, she watered the flower of hatred."

A ghost of an expression crossed Setsuna's face. It vanished quickly into the mask I knew so well.

"I apologize. I seem to have slipped off subject," Setsuna said. "How Artemis came to be at the Institute in unimportant. Her freedom is our current concern. In that lies our opportunity. As I said, Artemis was afforded amenities. Amongst those was the continuation of her endowment."

"Endowment?" I asked.

"Contract," Hikaru clarified. He gave a wry smile. "You know, like gaining super powers by getting hitched to a magical girl."

"Is that a complaint I hear, Hikaru?" Chiyo cooed. Her lips spread into a saccharine smile. "Did I not say I would share? Ravish whichever girl you want. None of them will refuse you, husband dear."

Chiyo's attendants stirred nervously, blushes touching their cheeks. Hikaru's face turned to stone. The sandy blond pretended he had heard nothing.

"The situations are comparable," Setsuna stated, reclaiming the conversation. "However, the scale involved is quite different. The source of Serenity's power was the tenki of Luna. But Luna's magic was greater than a human could wield. As such, the royal family divided this power through a series of endowments. Those who received an endowment became Peers. Artemis, who was a war hero and of royal blood, was especially privileged.

"A privilege that, by violating her parole, Artemis has revoked."

"Well shit, some good new for once," Hikaru breathed. The salary man leaned back. "How strong are we talking, then?"

"Artemis's spiritual strength is two to three times that of Chiyo's," Setsuna explained. "Without Luna's boon, her power is a fifth of what it was prior."

"Leaving her half as strong as Chiyo." My hand tightened on Gungnir. I grinned, hardly able to contain my eagerness. "We can take her, easy."

"Forgive me. My words were poorly chosen," Setsuna interrupted. "The measurement I gave was with the endowment revoked."

All humor vanished. A grim specter settled on the room.

Hikaru leaned over to me. "And just a bit ago, I thought things were going well..."

"You and me both," I murmured. My expression twisted into a scowl. "That bitch broke my legs. I was looking forward to revenge. But I guess that won't happen now."

"Uh, I know I am a bit out of my depth here. But three Chiyo's is really bad, right?" Ukyou asked.

I glanced at the chef. Her grill had cooled. The last two okonomiyaki had been delivered into the hands of Syaoran and Sakura. Ukyou projected worry. After the meeting with Chiyo, I had explained to her the scale of power.

Ukyou had listened. She had not been happy to hear it, but she had accepted my reasoning. It probably helped that she had seen first hand the kind of carnage Chiyo could dish out.

"She will kill us all," Fumio said. The grouchy boy was slouched in his chair. "She won't even notice when she crushes us underfoot."

"Hey. Ease up on the despair there, kid," Hikaru interrupted. "With shit like this, you got to look on the bright side." Hikaru flashed a humored smile. "We will all die quick."

"You, maybe," I grumbled. "As for me? It will be anything but quick."

"I would not call it opportunity if there was no hope," Setsuna interrupted. "Yes, Artemis's power is great. But, without her endowment, she is beatable. What is more, there is no need to face her in a contest of arms. Trickery is a more suitable weapon. To that end, I propose we use the four emperors seal."

The four emperors seal. I knew the name, but my fogged up memories offered little more than that. Priest techniques had never been my forte. I had not studied them for years. When my lack of talent had become apparent, my father had stopped seeking instructors.

Still, bits of knowledge remained. The four emperors seal was a grand sealing technique. That meant, like the hiryu shoten ha, it fed off the spiritual strength of the enemy. Beyond that, I knew nothing. Most priestly seals were based on kinzu. Kinzu was a magic that exorcised supernatural influence. Against demons and spirits, kinzu was mighty. Against humans, it was worthless. Creatures born of nature could neither be pinned nor destroyed by kinzu.

But not all seals relied on kinzu alone.

Where my knowledge was weak, Syaoran's was not.

"The four emperors seal is a holding technique. It is most often used to pin a greater demon so that concentrated power can be deployed to destroy it," Syaoran commented. "Ordinarily, it has no effect on humans. But if Artemis's power is as great as you say, the seal should take hold, shifting her into distorted space.

"But that is where I lose you. Assuming we had the four priests needed, the four emperors seal requires continuous chanting with minimal interruption. Kinzu is the only attack I know of that can be used against an enemy so captured. But, no matter her power, Artemis is human. She will not be harmed by kinzu. She could, quite simply, wait us out."

"Valid concerns. To address the first, Neptune, Mamoru, Sakura and yourself can be taught to use the four emperors seal. Hikaru and I will suffice in a pinch. We will practice the technique over the next two days. As the seal itself is simple, I do not believe this will cause any trouble.

"As for Artemis being unreachable," Setsuna trailed off, her ruby eyes sly. "I think you will find that I am quite adept at reaching through spatial distortions."

"Sounds risky," I interjected. "Kinzu reacts to magic. You fiddle with the seal wrong and the whole thing goes up in smoke."

Left unsaid was what Artemis would do after the four emperors seal failed. It was folly to think we could catch her with the same trick twice.

"This method is not without risks," Setsuna admitted. "But I assure you, my skill is not lacking. So long as I am not forced port a person in or out too quickly, the seal will survive my disruption."

"Sound great," Hikaru said. "But, as much as I hate to rain on your parade, we got a big ass problem. How the hell are we are going to trap an angry, all-powerful goddess in the first place?"

Setsuna eyes flipped to the blond. "I am not so negligent as to ignore details, Hikaru-kun," she reprimanded. "Capturing Artemis is the most straightforward part of this plan. We will engage her in battle."

"And that's were I come in!" Chiyo said cheerfully. The girl's broad, malicious smile glowed. "You don't have to worry about a thing, Hikaru. I'll kill Artemis long before Hecate's stupid seal takes hold."

The crowd eyed Chiyo nervously. Once a traitor, always a traitor. Chiyo was using us. If we were lucky, her urge to kill Artemis would stay strong until we were done with her.

"Joy," Hikaru grumbled. Sharing a battlefield with his destined love brought Hikaru no delight. "Okay, say we put Artemis in the Thunderdome. Then what? The shit doesn't stop with her. The Institute has a couple hundred girls. All of them will be trying to murder us. How are we going to deal that? Especially with four of our fighters occupied. Never mind the giant bulleyes painted on their backs."

Setsuna nodded. "If we were to fight the entirety of the Institute there would be cause for concern. That, however, will not happen," Setsuna said. "As for the opponents we do encounter. They can be dealt with summarily through the use of Sakura's time stop magic.

"But perhaps you have an alternative plan, Hikaru-kun?"

Setsuna's ruby eyes stabbed Hikaru as though they were knives. The blond merely scratched his chin. I wondered if he knew he had drawn the woman's ire. I suspected he did not care.

"Me? Well, I was thinking this sounds like a shit load of work." Hikaru leaned back in his chair. "Seems less risky to seal her up again. You know, seize the generators. Turn on the arcane mojo. Walk away. Heh. Our great grand kiddies can sort it out. Preferably from space, with laser cannons."

I scowled. Hikaru's plan was not pretty, but it had its merits. There was one problem though. If I was to become director, Artemis had to die. Hikaru's solution left the girls at the Institute high and dry.

"And what about the rest of the Institute?" I asked. "Sure, we would have Artemis caged in, but her army would be free do whatever they pleased."

"Yeesh. Give a man a break, kid," Hikaru complained. "We can deal with that shit later. It's the Director that will send us straight to hell."

Fumio sat up. The boy's eyes glinted with dark emotion. "There is only one entrance. We camp outside and kill everyone that comes out."

My glare shifted to Fumio. He met it with impudent challenge. His right hand slid to the bottle of water he kept at his side. With a loathsome gaze, he invited me to stand against him. He wanted an excuse for his bigotry. To him I was a magical girl, no different from the others.

My hand curled on Gungnir. If that is what you want, brat, I'll put you in your place.

Before the tension boiled over, Chiba stepped in. The tuxedo wearing gentleman set his cane on Fumio's shoulder. The brat jerked, glaring back at the intruder. Chiba shook his head in warning. Sneering, Fumio slid back into a slouch, his attention far from me.

"I always wanted to be a serial killer. How did you know?" Hikaru inserted, sarcastically. The sandy blond gave the brat a pointed look. "Kid, in the future, try to save the 'kill them all and let god sort them out' plan for when everything else has failed."

I nodded my agreement.

"Beyond the question of morality, a siege is not practical," Setsuna added. "While Gondul's death makes such tactics possible, we lack the requisite manpower." Setsuna's eyes settled on Hikaru. "Not that it matters. As intriguing as these musings are, they are flawed at the root. Restoring the wards is impossible. Artemis ordered her girls to destroy the control systems the moment the generators were shutdown."

Hikaru released a heavy sigh. "And no control device means no generator. No generator means no ward. No ward means we are shit out of luck," Hikaru summarized. "Well, crap. So much for my kick the can solution."

"It was a crap plan to begin with," I grunted.

"Everyone's a critic," Hikaru complained. He flashed me a lazy grin. "Got a better one?"

"More manpower," I offered. I looked at Setsuna. "Any reason the rest of the senshi aren't here?"

All eyes shifted to Setsuna. I wasn't the only one who wanted to an answer to that question.

"My reasoning has not changed since we last met, Ranma-kun," Setsuna replied. "The inners must not be involved in this affair."

"And what is your reasoning?" I challenged. "Because I must have missed it the first time."

"What Hecate wants is to keep her darling little girls squeaky clean," Chiyo sneered. "It is amazing, isn't it, how many miracles she can conjure up for her own when she can't find any for us." Chiyo's voice turned sweet. "That's why you should stick with me, Ranma-chan. I'll take good care of you. I promise."

"You will care me straight into an early grave," I snorted. My eyes returned to Setsuna. "I'm not hearing an answer."

Setsuna's ruby eyes swept the crowd. Vague murmurs of discontent rose from the watchers. The green haired woman did not look pleased.

"My word is not sufficient?" Setsuna asked. Nobody looked away. "A mutiny, then. I suppose I can indulge your curiosity. As you might imagine, my reasons are numerous. The one most pertinent is Ginzuisho."

"You withhold support because of a magic rock?" Chiyo said scornfully. "That's a new low even for you, Hecate."

"Ginzuisho is more than a mere rock." Setsuna's voice cracked like a whip. "The Silver Crystal is an item of absolute power. A catalyst representing the strength of the Moon itself. Ginzuisho's magic is bound to service of the throne. Artemis is royalty. Her existence casts doubt on the Princess's legitimacy. Should Sailor Moon meet her Great Aunt in battle, the stone will be forced to choose. Should it side with Artemis, we are doomed."

I frowned. A sudden, horrible thought crossed my mind. "Wait. When you say, 'the strength of the Moon itself' you don't mean-"

"That is exactly what I mean," Setsuna confirmed. "As you suspect, Ranma-kun, Ginzuisho is an artifact of tenki. It draws from Luna's source. Its power, as you might imagine, exceeds mortal comprehension."

"Well," Hikaru interrupted, "I don't know about anyone else, but this mortal wants to know how deep the shit pile is. Hit us with the real world numbers. How many Chiyo's are we talking about?"

"During the Silver Millennium, Ginzuisho was studied in great detail. As such, I know for certain that the crystal's maximum output is limited to one-four-hundredth of the Moon's spiritual flow," Setsuna answered. "In physics terms, that equates to ten petawatts." The green haired woman drew a chilling smile. "Or, if you would prefer, fifty Hiroshimas. A second."

Silence followed. Hikaru leaned near my ear. "I don't know about you, but I am still not hearing real world numbers," he murmured.

"Damn straight."

"Of course, such power comes with grave consequence. To wield the full might of the Silver Crystal is to exchange your life," Setsuna continued. "But that does not mean the crystal is useless. Should Artemis gain Ginzuisho, she will restore her lost power twice over."

"Thirty Chiyo's. How bad can that be?" I said under my breath. "Yeesh. How did she get so freaking strong in the first place? Next time I meet Pop, I am lodging a complaint. Apparently, his training was crap."

Hikaru chuckled. With a wry smile, the sandy-haired blond faced the crowd. "I think you made your point, Hecate. We will shelve 'Operation Coin Flip' for now. No sense giving Artemis the rock of ridiculous power."

"As you say, Hikaru. But, if I recall, that leaves us without an alternative," Setsuna said. "Unless we are returning to – what did you call it? – Thunderdome?"

Hikaru grimaced. He shot a glance at me. I shrugged to indicate I didn't care either way. If anything, Hikaru looked unhappier.

"About that," Hikaru said carefully. "Are we sure it will work? No offense Syaoran, I know you know your shit, but we are talking mega-crazy-power here."

"The seal will work," Setsuna answered with authority. "Before the fall, Artemis faced multiple assassination attempts. The four emperors seal was used in two such occasions. In both cases, it held admirably."

I snorted. "At least it's tried and true."

"The seal works. The assassination part? Not so much," Hikaru grumbled. He fell back, his head leaning over his chair so that he stared at the rafters. "Oh hell. I've got nothing." Hikaru sat up again. He looked around. "So, who's the lucky fellow joining Artemis in the Thunderdome?"

"Me," I answered without hesitation. I gave Setsuna a measured look. "That is what I'm here for, isn't it?"

"You are, without question, the most suitable adversary," she answered. "However, Artemis need not face a single opponent. A series will suffice. A tandem assault also has merit. Alas, the time between entries or exits must be spaced carefully. Should we choose to pit Artemis against multiple foes, retreat will be impossible."

Setsuna's garnet gaze swept over the crowd.

"Are there any objections?"

Silence. The plan was decided.

-oOo-

Ding.

I opened the door. A small bell chimed, announcing my presence. A delicious smell rolled over me, Chinese cooking.

"Nihao, Ranma!"

A purple haired waitress danced from the kitchen. With joyful steps, she crossed the room then latched onto my arm. She pressed her breasts into my shoulder. They were soft and warm. My face heated. Nervously, I looked away. I knew where her lure led. Marriage.

Shudder.

"We just opening," she purred in her choppy Japanese. "But if Ranma want date Shampoo, I make duck boy work instead."

Shampoo was a Joketsuzoku warrior, and the most frightening of my fiancées. Years ago, she had chased me from China to Japan, all in the name of an obscure, tribal law. Ranma, I kill. The catch phrase still echoed in my ears. Just as quickly, hate had turned to love. But, no matter her cuteness, it could not overcome the trauma left by multiple assassination attempts.

I wiggled in her grip. Shampoo gave my arm no quarter. Adoringly, she nuzzled the limb. Sweat, blood, food, and flowers tangled themselves into an wild smell.

"I'm not here for a date," I said. I jerked my arm again, irritated. "I need to talk to Cologne."

Reluctantly, Shampoo stepped away. Her eyes were curious. "You wish to meet with honored Grandmother?" she asked. "Is husband short on money? You wear too cute dress to work with Shampoo, yes?"

Embarrassment grew.

This morning, I had opened the Chiyo's trunk. I had chosen the simplest of the dresses contained within. It was a cute, burgundy piece that ended at the knees. Fancy, black ribbons tied the front, and white lace trimmed the edges. With it I wore black dress shoes, each sporting modest heels. A butterfly clip channeled my hair so that it flowed over my shoulders.

In the Institute, I had worn sweeter. Often, I had chosen sexier. But never had I willingly picked clothes so feminine. I felt nervous under Shampoo's gaze. I wondered what she thought, seeing me like this. My tangled feelings only added to the confusion. But I had resolved to try this. Until I understood myself, I would continue to wear cute things. Eventually, my heart would sort itself out and I would know what it was I loved and hated.

"I am not here for work, either," I mumbled.

"Oh-ho-ho," a new voice laughed. "To think you would chose me over a young woman. What flattery."

A scrawny gnome pogoed her way from the back room. Cologne, an ancient matriarch of Joketsuzoku. Centuries of life had left the woman shriveled and shrunken. At her full height, Cologne reached my knee. Atop her gnarled staff, she commanded from a peak thrice that.

A fool would have thought her helpless. I was not tricked by the packaging. Cologne was a grandmaster of the art. She was a bastion of power and wisdom. If we were to fight, there was no telling which of us would come out on top. In terms of skill and strength, Cologne had me bested. The vigor of youth was my only edge.

Which was why I needed her.

I glanced around. A dozen tables sat empty. The Cat Cafe opened in a quarter of an hour. At first, business would be slow. Then, as lunch approached, the crowds would grow in size. Judging the environment free of eaves droppers, I took a seat. Cologne bounced over to the table's edge.

"What brings you here today, son-in-law?" Cologne asked. "Trapped as a woman? Cursed by a wandering god? Oh-ho-ho, I don't think my old heart can bear such excitement."

"If only," I muttered. "What do you know of the Pretty Princess Institute?"

Cologne's humor vanished, making her look even more ancient and withered. "Ah, yes. I feared this day would come," she said softly. "Son-in-law, you best forget this quarrel. The Institute is not to be trifled with." Cologne paused and eyed me. "Though I suspect my advice is given too late."

"You got that right," I snorted. The embers of anger stirred in my heart. "And I plan on doing whole lot more than trifling. I'm taking them down. I need your help."

My steely gaze met Cologne's. The old woman turned away, a ragged breath slipping from her lips.

"Ah, son-in-law, you certainly know how to make things difficult for an old woman," Cologne complained. Her gaze shifted to the purple haired girl at my side. "Granddaughter, close the shop. This discussion may run on for some time."

Shampoo slipped from my side. She locked the door and checked the paper sign before vanishing into the back. The whole while, her attention remained fixed on us.

Cologne reached out with her staff and dragged a stool close to the table. The old woman settled into her seat.

"I regret, son-in-law, that you came here for nothing," Cologne began. "The Pretty Princess Institute is a foe I dare not stand against. My bones are too weathered and my skin too wrinkled. It is for the young to fight foolish battles and for the old to warn against them."

This was where negotiations began. I did not expect Cologne to help out of hand. Indeed, her refusal was anticipated. Cologne had been too wise to anger the Musk, despite their insults and arrogance. That she had not stood against the Phoenix was even more telling. To go against the Institute? That was beyond belief.

But I was going to convince her anyway.

"You are not going to have a choice," I argued. "Institute won't leave you alone. They are hunting girls with high ki-potential. Shampoo is sure to be at the top of their list."

"Shampoo is no weak girl to be grabbed off the street," the purple haired girl interrupted.

Shampoo had slipped back into the room while Cologne and I were talking. She leaned against a support beam and skewered me with an indignant glare.

My gaze jerked to hers. "That didn't stop them from nabbing Akane and Ukyou," I retorted.

A storm crossed Shampoo's face. I readied myself for her wrath. Then, the clouds split. Shampoo's eyes lit up with delight and the girl broke into celebration.

"Kyaaa! Husband worry about Shampoo." Shampoo flounced to either side before bouncing over to me. "No need to fear. Shampoo is way stronger than weakling kitchen destroyer."

Crack! Cologne's staff crashed against the table.

"Enough, child," the matriarch hissed. "Son-in-law is quite right in his fears. Foolish dreams of invincibility will lead to your downfall. I thought you had learned that lesson, Granddaughter, after your shameful defeat by an outsider."

Shampoo cringed and lowered her head. "Yes, honored Grandmother."

Cologne's eyes returned to me. "As for you, son-in-law, your concern is misplaced. I was contacted by a representative of the Institute two months ago. The young woman named Akina Ishii assured me that they would not interfere with Joketsuzoku affairs."

Two months ago? I scowled. Akina had planned my abduction in advance. It wasn't mere chance that they had left Shampoo alone. The Institute was well enough informed to know that stirring the hornet's nest called the Cat Cafe was unwise.

"And you trust them?"

"Trust?" Cologne chuckled. "Ah. So young. So foolish." Cologne shifted in her seat so that her large eyes focused more clearly on my own. "Let an old, wise woman teach you something, son-in-law. Amongst peoples and nations, there is no trust. There is only self interest. The Institute does not challenge me because angering Joketsuzoku risks much and gains little."

"It won't stay that way," I countered. "The Institute is building an army. They plan to conquer the world. They need girls. Lots of girls. Sooner or later, they will stab you in the back. Not today, I'll grant that. But next year? The year after?"

I shook my head and pressed my argument "The Institute is weak now. We can win. Blow it, and we will lose our only chance."

The old woman closed her ancient eyes and lowered her head.

"Son-in-law, you are young. I am old. These ears have heard those words before. Did you think you were the first? The Joketsuzoku have weathered many storms," she said. "The Western Powers that carved my land into fiefdoms. The Xinhai Revolution that brought an end to the Qing Dynasty. The great war, where your people slaughtered mine. Mao, who threw salt on our wounds.

"Through this, Joketsuzoku has persevered. We swallowed our pride. We bowed our heads. We bore the shame of doing nothing. And, because of that, we live. Our way continues. Our traditions are strong. We thrive.

"Perhaps you are right, son-in-law. Today may be the day we should raise arms. But tell me, what will the Joketsuzoku gain from this venture? Why should we risk our lives fighting a war for your people?"

My face scrunched in annoyance. "I'm not asking the Joketsuzoku to fight. I'm asking you to fight."

Cologne's staff flashed. Crack. The sharp blow pounded through my skull. The world rolled around me as though made of water. I nursed the welt on my head and glared at the old woman. She was not amused.

"I am a matriarch of Joketsuzoku, boy!" she thundered. "When I raise my hand, the Joketsuzoku raise theirs. When I go to war, the Joketsuzoku go to war. All that I do reflects upon my people. The vengeance of my foes fall upon my village. Tell me, son-in-law, what will you have me say to the grieving mother? What words of comfort will I speak to the orphaned child?"

I winced. Cologne's words struck harder than her staff. The burden of leadership. As a matriarch, Cologne's life did not belong to her. It belonged to her people. It was a fact that cut into my heart. Director. I, too, would be bound by those chains after I killed Artemis.

I did not look forward to it. Freedom was the core of my being. I was a wanderer. I had seen the truth with my own eyes. I had no desire to be pinned in place. But the idea of murdering all those innocent girls was a thousand times worse.

Cologne's fury cooled. The old woman shrank back into her seat. "It is not that I do not wish to help, son-in-law. I owe you a debt for saving my grand-daughter. If I were not so burdened, perhaps I would fight with you, if only to feel this old heart beat again. But, alas, I am not. I cannot aid you. I cannot risk that the Joketsuzoku would be punished in my stead. Not without a payment worthy of their sacrifice."

"If honored Grandmother will not help, Shampoo will."

"Granddaughter," Cologne warned.

Shampoo's eyes narrowed. "You no say I cannot go. I am warrior, not matriarch. My fight no reflect upon Joketsuzoku."

"Ah. Such is youth," Cologne sighed. "You speak truly, Granddaughter. To fight at her husband's side is a warrior's right. I cannot deny you that." The old woman closed her eyes for a long moment. "Son-in-law, I have but one request. Keep this foolish child alive."

I honored the matriarch with a bow. "I will do what I can."

"Oh-ho-ho, how unusually polite," Cologne teased. "I regret that I can do so little. If your request is humble, this old woman will grant it."

I raised my head. "I want your help."

"Son-in-law," Cologne said, dangerously.

"I heard you the first time, Cologne," I replied. My tone was serious and my eyes unwavering. "But I need your help. I am prepared to pay for it."

"This is not something you can buy with a promise, boy."

Cologne's eyes were narrow. Her aged frame was puny when compared to the dark presence looming over the table. No longer was I dealing with Cologne. Instead, I faced a matriarch of Joketsuzoku. She was not amused by the diplomacy of a child.

I did not break. I did not quiver. I did not back down. Cologne's wrath was but a gentle breeze when set against my purpose. I was not the boy she remembered. She could not understand how serious I was. How could she? I had gone through hell. I had changed. I was stronger.

"Say that after you see what I put on the table," I countered.

Cologne's threatening presence faded. Her ancient eyes glinted with intrigue. "Oh? And what is it that you think will sway a matriarch of Joketsuzoku, boy?"

"Eternal youth and beauty," I offered with a smirk.

A gnarled staff whistled through the air. I was faster. Magic propagated through my soul. Haigeki tore. Shuken mended. Tenki claimed me. My dress puffed with frills and pink. Around me formed hairs of angelic twine. Cologne's staff was captured by the webbing. It slowed to a halt, hopelessly entangled.

The matriarch froze. She stood there, suspended in mid swing. At first her eyes were wide with surprise. Quickly, they thinned as she sought the answer to the puzzle placed before her.

Shampoo broke the stillness. "Husband is magical girl?"

Cologne eased her staff from my web. "You never cease to surprise, son-in-law. And here I was about to berate you for teasing an old woman." The ancient matriarch settled back into her seat. "Eternal youth and beauty was it? If you are joking, I suggest you say so now. There are matters you do not make light of when dealing with a woman. Especially an old one."

"It's not a joke," I defended. I paused and thought better of it. "Not entirely anyway," I admitted, embarrassed. "I can't say it will work for you. Not without a lot of help."

I grimaced and looked away. In retrospect, dangling 'youth and beauty' in front of Cologne was cruel. Certainly, tenki could provide that. But, as old and wrinkly as Cologne was, tenki was probably beyond her reach. Without extreme assistance, anyway. The kind of assistance that would turn Cologne into my slave.

I suspected she would not find those terms acceptable.

The old woman snuck her staff in close and rapped me on the knuckles as punishment.

"I see you have stolen the Institute's magic," Cologne observed. "I take it that is your offer? If so, tell me of its nature. Should it be great enough, I will consider your request."

"Not magic. Tenki," I answered. "Tenki-"

Bang! The rap of Cologne's staff killed all conversation. The tiny matriarch stood upon her stool. Impossibly, she loomed over me. "Son-in-law, do you mean to tell me that you have obtained the Axis of Heaven?"

The Axis of Heaven? I went blank for a second then recognized the name as an alternative reading. "You've heard of it?"

"Heard of it?" Cologne's gnarled staff shook in her hand. Slowly, she lowered herself back to her seat. "What a fool I have been," she muttered. "To think it lay before my eyes all this time."

I frowned. "So you do know of it."

"Yes." Cologne answered. "The Axis of Heaven was once the greatest of all techniques commanded by the Joketsuzoku. But it was lost. Lost for three millennia."

"You lost tenki?" I said, disbelieving. "How did you manage that? Sure, it is a bit tricky. Dangerous, too. But it isn't that hard to pass on." I glanced at the purple haired girl. "Shampoo could learn it with help."

"In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, son-in-law," Cologne explained. "Not all who crave power are strong. For those who are weak, the ground is fragile. They stand upon a precipice and fear they will fall. So, instead of bettering themselves, they worsen others. With their hands, they pluck out the eyes of all who would challenge them, leaving everyone blind.

"Greed was our undoing. The secret of tenki was jealously guarded. Then it was lost. So too vanish many of our techniques. Clans take their teachings the grave. Elders hide their art, fearing the strength of outsiders. Ha! How vain. How foolish. What purpose does it serve to have an art but no heir to inherit? How can we call ourselves great when our skills fade into legend and myth?"

Cologne's words were weary, containing the decades of useless argument.

It was a feeling that touched my heart. Cologne was right. I knew it. I had seen the eagerness with which aged instructors had taught me. The burning desire they had felt at the prospect of keeping their art alive. Was that why they had been so willing to sell their daughters? Had they lived in fear that they would be the last?

Tenki, for all its greatness, was no different. No, it was worse. Tenki was a magic that could only be learned by the young, talented, and beautiful. Shampoo and Ukyou had the capacity. But those girls stood at the peak of their generation. Still they needed my aid.

Those like me? Those who could unravel the art and reproduce it without assistance? We were the rarest of kin. A normal clan might see generations pass without an heir. If the teachers refused to teach, if the students refused to learn, then the numbers would be slim indeed. Throw in greed, murder, and politics, and it became all to easy for tenki to vanish into the mists of time.

It was an unsettling feeling. I found myself wondering, who would carry on my skills? I had poured my heart and soul into learning the art. If the art died with me, it would be as though my work had turned to dust.

"How many can be taught the Axis of Heaven?" Cologne asked.

"Tenki requires high spiritual power," I answered. "Shampoo has enough, but half that is probably the limit. They will need crude ki manipulation too. Nothing fancy, but if a girl can't form an aura, I would be wasting my time." I paused and gave a nervous smile. "And... well.. they have to be good looking. I know it sounds stupid, but tenki is based on an aura of beauty," I finished lamely.

"Oh? Are you saying that I am not beautiful, son-in-law?" The old woman's eyes twinkled. "Very well. I accept your offer. In return for my aid, you will teach the Axis of Heaven to any girl of Joketsuzoku who is able."

A broad smile spread across my lips. "You've got a deal."

-oOo-

"That's a lot of uniforms," I observed.

We were an odd collection of warriors. From my perch atop a high building, I observed the battlefield. Cologne stood at my right, shielding her eyes from the sun as she gazed upon the meandering ants. Behind her stood Shampoo and Mousse. To my left were Ukyou and Konatsu.

Ukyou stepped close, gripped the metal frame of a giant sign, and leaned over the side. The girl grimaced when she saw what I had spotted.

"We aren't going to get arrested, are we?" Ukyou asked.

"Chef girl worry about silly cops? She is fake warrior," Shampoo said snidely.

Ukyou's nervousness vanished into anger. The magical chef glared at the purple haired amazon. "I want to see you keep your restaurant with a prison record, bitch."

"Hmph," Shampoo huffed. "If stupid official take what is Shampoo's, Shampoo will shampoo him until he forget place."

"Children," Cologne interrupted.

The matriarch's rebuke shredded the argument. The girl's war turned into one of glares and gestures. Cologne chuckled at the antics.

"What do you think, son-in-law?" Cologne asked.

"They were tipped off," I answered. "And not by the Institute, either."

My gaze swept the crowd. Scores of violet silhouettes filled the lens of my glasses. Magical girls swarmed the streets of Tokyo. Further away, a discrete army of cops maneuvered under civilian cover. Quietly, innocents were shuffled from the battlefield. Under the guise of roadwork, the traffic was strangled until the streets were empty.

But behind the roadblock was a surreptitious police presence. Cars were parallel parked so that the street could suddenly become a wall of flashing lights. I had little doubt that the moment combat commenced, the unofficial barricade would become a very official one.

I wasn't going to complain. No one sane wanted a mess on the scale of Chiyo's Starlight Starfall. And, in terms of damage, this fight was going to be much, much worse.

"They won't get involved," I answered.

Cologne gaze narrowed on mine. She looked away. "It is your battlefield, son-in-law," she answered.

From the old woman's calculating eyes, I could see that she was making plans in case I was wrong. I wasn't about to stop her. I was thinking the exact same thing.

"Uh... Ranchan, how many girls are we talking about? Because I'm counting nine. And that is just the girls standing outside."

Ukyou's fight with Shampoo had ended with a temporary truce. The chef was once again peering over the roof. One by one, she ticked off the girls with her eyes to complete her count.

"Forty-three," Cologne answered.

"Fifty-eight," I corrected. "They have three squads of five on reserve."

"Oh?" Cologne noised. The old woman raised her head and squinted as she plucked out the troops scattered all around. "Those are good eyes you have there, son-in-law. A pincer attack?"

"I'm cheating," I said, tapping my glasses. "And I doubt the Institute is that imaginative. I am betting those girls are stationed so far out so they can cut off retreat."

This was a meeting between senshi. I had arranged it with the help of Setsuna. The official reason for this discussion was to debate future relations. In truth, this was my declaration of directorship. It was imperative that my intent was established before Artemis fell. If not, the Institute might fracture before I gained the begrudging support of my fellow senshi.

I could not allow that. The purpose of my sacrifice was to save lives, not destroy them.

But the official, unofficial reason for this meeting only disguised the greater intent. This was a trap. For me and for them.

The Institute did not disappoint.

Fifty-eight girls, a fourth of the Institute by population and half it in terms of combat potential. The Pretty Princess Institute was saying loud and clear that it was not playing around. My 'sisters' were intending to drag me back by force. If they succeeded, no holds would be barred when it came to correcting my thinking.

But the Institute was not the only party to field an army.

My force was numerically inferior. I had six to their sixty. But where they had quantity, I had quality. Ukyou and Konatsu were skilled martial artists. Boosted by tenki, they were worth any three girls from the Institute. Ruthless drills on tactics and technique had only solidified that edge.

Shampoo and Mousse were just as skilled as their counterparts. Unfortunately, a mere two days had not been enough to bridge of month of preparation. Shampoo was not transformed. Ordinarily, the lack of magic would have made the Joketsuzoku warriors worthless. Syaoran had changed that. Mousse and Shampoo were armed with a dozen paper seals. The charms were laden with kinzu. When placed upon a weapon, the seals would give the warriors the the ability to pierce the auric defense of magical girls.

"Fifty-eight?" Ukyou said in shock. "Can we handled that many?"

"Cooking girl silly. Trash is trash. Shampoo will crush all enemies," Shampoo said haughtily.

Ukyou's eyes flashed with annoyance. "Spare us the bullshit, sugar. If even half those girls have ranged attacks, they will saturate our position until we go down. You know it."

Shampoo gave an arrogant huff, raised her nose, and turned her back on Ukyou. From my position, the purple haired girl's expression was not so hidden. In it, I saw an uneasy fear.

"Stupid girly-girly Japanese girls can no hit Shampoo if she is already in face," Shampoo countered snootily.

"Please tell me how you plan to be 'in the face' of sixty girls at once," Ukyou retorted. No answer followed. Ukyou snorted. "That's what I thought."

"Do not fear, my darling Shampoo," Mousse interrupted. The white robed boy kneeled. With great authority, he addressed an air conditioning unit. "I will gladly throw myself into the fire to protect you from harm."

With a cruel kick, Shampoo knocked Mousse to the ground. The boy's thick glasses tumbled onto the hard surface. He scrambled to grab them while Shampoo haughtily pressed his face against the concrete.

"Stupid Mousse, Shampoo is over here," she said. "And you no allowed to throw yourself into fire. Shampoo be very angry if duck boy get hurt."

Mousse's expression rose as though he had been thanked by an angel. "Shampoo."

Heedless of his feelings, Shampoo continued. "Duck boy ruin husband's plan if injured. Use up all seals first, then you be Shampoo's meat shield."

"Ah, to be young again," Cologne murmured. "Well, son-in-law? Do you care to share with us your wisdom?"

My expression twisted. "Hard to say. Most of those girls couldn't hit the broadside of a barn. On the other hand, magic can be pretty varied. The Institute will have a few of tricks up its sleeve," I said. I frowned, and tried to put my words into numbers. "We will have to break them apart. We can probably handle twenty at a time. Engaging a larger force would be dangerous."

"Oh-ho-ho," Cologne laughed. "You offer quite the challenge, son-in-law. Mobile warfare it is. But, son-in-law, don't forget that we have a time limit. Those seals burn quickly. When they go, we will lose two of our fighters."

"I know," I replied. "I'm hoping we will have it wrapped up before that happens."

"Hope is not wise on a battlefield," Cologne warned. "But war and wisdom rarely go hand and hand. Do take care, son-in-law. Without you, this endeavor will surely fail."

"I will be fine," I said, twirling Gungnir in emphasis. "Wish me luck."

"Hold it right there, Ranchan," Ukyou barked, momentarily forgetting her argument with Shampoo. "You are not walking in there on your own."

I let out an exasperated sigh. "Ucchan, I already told you, this is between me and them. I need you here. Down there, you will be one more thing I have to worry about."

"And when I am up here, I will be the one worrying," Ukyou argued. "I am not that fragile, Ranchan. You need someone to guard your back."

The purple haired girl stepped forward. "Shampoo is going too."

"Both of you are staying here," I growled. "It is too dangerous."

"All the more reason for back up, Sugar," Ukyou replied.

"If cooking girl is going, Shampoo is going," Shampoo added. "Shampoo no let thief steal husband while back is turned."

I shot a desperate look at Cologne. The old matriarch sighed and pogoed forward. Faster than I could blink, she rapped both girls on the head. The move was impressive enough, on account of the fact the crone standing on her staff while doing it. Effortlessly piercing Ukyou's shuken at the same time? Mind boggling.

"Enough," she chided. "This is son-in-law's battlefield. If you can't obey orders, then it would be best you leave."

Cologne's steely eyes speared the girls. Neither could raise their gaze to meet hers. Unhappily, they backed down.

The matriarch turned to me. "Go, son-in-law. I will keep things in order here."

"Thanks," I said. With that, I jumped off the roof.

It was a fast, five story plunge to the ground. Air whistled, fluttering the edges of my dress. I slowed at the last few meters, the laws of gravity and air resistance rewritten through the force of my shuken. Stiletto heels touched softly on the alley's floor, releasing nary a whisper of sound.

Briskly, I navigated labyrinthine alleys of tall, featureless brick. I stepped out into the open. The meeting place was a broad, two floored bar. The squat restaurant was dwarfed by the seven story tower a building away. Two lanes of one way road drew a line between me and it. The distance was made wider by the bands of parallel parked cars running on either side of the street.

Urban warfare was far from my first choice. After the fight with Garmr and Gondul, I had serious qualms with the dangers involved for outsiders. Setsuna had changed my mind. The mere mention of open field combat had been enough. As much as I disliked fighting it out in Tokyo, engaging the Institute on a battlefield where they could concentrate their strength was suicide.

City streets and tall buildings favored a small, mobile force. And so we would fight here, in a rundown part of the inner city.

Girls in fancy dress roamed the street. A curtain defense to shield against direct attack. They stiffened when they caught sight of me. Two separated from the group and approached. I recognized their faces. Yellow and Blue. This time they had the wisdom to be transformed.

"Saotome-sama" "Hime-sama" The girls greeted with graceful curtsies. If they were bitter, they hid it well.

Yellow gestured toward the bar's glass doors. "If you would follow me, Saotome-sama."

I let myself be led into the building. The bar had one, giant room. The center space was reserved for dance floor. To my left was a stage. A balcony ran overhead, ringing the room so that the drinkers could enjoy the show as it played out below.

The bar was filled to the brim by magical girls.

Brilliant colors decorated the wooden room. A field of flowers. The colorful crowd rose to greet me. In a descending wave, the Institute curtsied. Samas and himes roared like applause.

My eyes drifted to the largest object in the room. A huge bulk was set on the dance floor, hidden beneath canvas. Normally it would have dominated the room, but instead it was wedged slightly to the side so that a single table could claim the center.

There, all of Artemis's remaining senshi were gathered.

I turned from the bulk and swept the crowd with my gaze. Off to the side, was Lilac. She watched me with squinted eyes, her flower rod tapping her open palm. Carrotcake was half hidden by a circle of chattering girls. Her quiet giggles were muted to avoid attention. Emiko stood near the back. Her head hung low, projecting an aura of depression. Carefully, she lifted her eyes. She shifted them quickly when she met my own.

Then there was Akane. My fiancée stood behind the gathered senshi, an honor guard for the inner sanctum. She held her head high with pride. A tiny sneer was directed at me. I could almost hear her saying: How could you abandon this? My gut roiled at the sight.

"Saotome. What a pleasant surprise," Akina drawled. The woman tossed her dark, violet hair. "I thought for sure you would burn the building down around us. Did you learn to mime refinement?"

I quirked a smile and pulled back a chair. I slammed Gungnir on the table, delighting in the way the woman jumped at the deadly sight.

"Maybe I wanted to say hello before lighting my senpais on fire," I replied.

Akina let out a throaty laugh. Her ruby lips curved with mirth. "That is the Saotome I remember."

"The walls are wooden sheet laid upon a reinforced, cement structure. The supply of fuel is more limited then appearances imply. Several of our girls possess powers suitable for suppressing fire. Without an accelerant, or a flame of great heat, any attempt to burn this building would meet with failure," Michiko commented.

Akina sighed. "It's the spirit of it, Michiko."

Michiko blinked and cocked her head to the side. "It would be easier to cut the supports and drop the roof on us."

Akina's eye twitched in response.

"To be fair, that is what I am planning," I said with an innocent smile. I crossed my legs. "Drinks?"

"Of course. Tea please, Naomi-chan." Kamiko called. Her hazel eyes turned to me. "I apologize, kohai. It was our belief that this meeting would not be serious."

"If it occurred at all," Akina murmured.

"Surprise then," I responded. "And have Emiko bring the tea. That way I can trust it won't have anything special in it."

From her place in the back, Emiko stirred nervously. Kamiko turned toward the girl in green and nodded her agreement. With that matter settled, attention returned to me.

"I presume, Saotome-chan, that you did not come here to turn yourself in?" Kamiko asked.

"Saotome surrender? Ha!" Akina laughed. "As much as I have tried to teach her otherwise, our cute little kohai speaks only the language of fists and broken bones." Akina's ruby lips spread in a smile. "If we want to take her, we will have to do it by force."

Kamiko sighed, "I am aware of Saotome-chan's proclivities, Akina. I was merely hoping that she had changed her mind."

I snorted. "Your hope is wasted. I'm not going back to the Institute. Artemis will destroy me. Your words, remember?"

"I assumed as much," Kamiko answered. "Then please tell us why you have called us here."

My answer was interrupted by the tea's arrival. Emiko set four mugs of hot water in front of us. Each had a small bag of leaves inside. I snagged my cup and met the green eyed girl's gaze. Emiko returned a nervous smile.

I gently set my hand on hers. "You okay?"

"I-I am fine, Saotome-sama," Emiko whispered back.

"If you are truly concerned for Emiko, Saotome-chan, I recommend that you do not insert yourself further into her affairs," Kamiko answered briskly. "I do not wish to punish her more than necessary. Now, if you would please share with us the reason for this meeting."

I patted Emiko's hand another time then dismissed her in favor of Kamiko.

"I want you to back me as director."

"Saotome, you are a true delight," Akina said. Her lips were twisted with amusement. "Who else would have the audacity to invite us for tea and proclaim her candidacy for a position that is not vacant?" Daintily, she sipped from her cup. "A brute to the bone."

I raised a brow. "The position will be vacant when Artemis is dead," I observed.

"Absolutely not," Kamiko snapped. The woman's hazel eyes were sharp. "You are unsuitable for the role, Saotome-chan. You lack experience and the requisite personality. It was difficult enough to prepare you for the role of senshi. You are not capable of being director. And that is beyond the irregularity of adopting Artemis's killer as her successor."

"Not irregular," Michiko corrected. "Many historical appointments were established after the murder of the previous leader."

"Yes, trust Saotome to claim the conqueror's right," Akina added.

"I prefer to believe that we live in a more civilized era," Kamiko countered, tiredly. "But my reasoning stands. Saotome-chan is unsuitable."

"Then fix me," I responded.

Kamiko was taken aback. "Kohai, I hardly thing you would agree-"

"To have you dicker around with my head?" I snorted. "You didn't have any problem doing it before. And I am not giving you permission to change whatever you want, if that's what you're asking. But if you have to tweak a few things so I can handle being director? Fine."

"As always, Saotome does not know how to hold back," Akina commented. Her violet eyes twinkled. "If she is willing to go that far, I say we let her."

Kamiko frowned while dribbling her fingers on the table. She glanced at Michiko.

"The rules governing the appointment of the position director allow her claim. All senshi are equal. She is a senshi. Without a legitimate reason to refuse, we must consider candidate Saotome's bid as valid," Michiko elucidated.

"The Director of the Pretty Princess Institute is decided by more than an internal vote," Kamiko pointed out. "It is a political position. Saotome would have to be accepted by the Prime Minister."

"Negative," Michiko said. "The Institute has been programed for extreme loyalty. A political appointee would not be accepted. Only a senshi is fit leader. This dynamic is understood by the standing government. Without due cause, they would have no choice but to support our candidate.

"Further, I find the highlighted concerns weak. Experience can be gained. Personality is subject to change. Excluding these factors, your reasoning remains flawed. Upon becoming director, candidate Saotome, would have our absolute support. Any task that exceeds her ability can be delegated."

"So you have no problem with her appointment?" Kamiko mused.

"Affirmative," Michiko said with a sharp nod. "Should candidate Saotome's bid go unchallenged, her claim wins by default."

"Chiyo is interested," I inserted.

Akina snorted. "No one in this room regards Chiyo as a senshi," she said. Her ruby lips curved into a teasing smile. "So, is there a competing bid?"

"On the matter of Chiyo, I agree with Akina," Kamiko said. "The Institute would fracture before it accepted that girl as director. On the issue of Saotome-chan?" Kamiko sighed. "It seems I am outvoted. However, before I can accept Saotome-chan's candidacy, I have a final question. Please tell me, Saotome-chan, what future do you envision for the Institute?"

I sipped my tea and thought. For me, the point of being the director was to save the Institute. I wanted the kidnapped girls to go home. I wanted the wounds to be healed and the wrongs to righted. When that was done, the Institute had no meaning to me. Let it be destroyed.

For the senshi, that was different.

I could see it in their demeanor. Akina leaned forward with sudden interest. Michiko's steel blue eyes were fixed on mine. Kamiko judged. Her gaze was that of a hawk. If I stumbled, her claws would snatch me like prey.

Hers was the voice I needed. The others offered vague support – Akina's playful and Michiko's weak. If Kamiko launched a counter bid, I would lose. Because she was the most qualified successor.

I closed my eyes. I sought an answer that would satisfy her. I had nothing but brutal honesty.

"I want to save everyone," I said truthfully. "The kidnappings have to stop."

My eyes flitted over the crowd, pausing on Emiko. Victims, I reminded myself. All of these girls were victims. Even those like Akane, who were convinced that this was what they wanted, were victims.

And now, all those victims were watching me as closely as the senshi themselves.

"Emiko, Rin, Naomi, Akane, everyone should be free to visit their families," I added. "As for the Institute, I don't know. Part of me wants to get rid of it. But, I think what I would like more than that is to turn it into something good. A real magical girl school."

"A fair purpose," Kamiko said thoughtfully. "One Akina will support. You may not know this, but Akina volunteered to teach at the Institute in hopes of helping younger girls."

I glanced at Akina. Her playful smile turned wistful.

"However," Kamiko added, sharply. "You seem to have forgotten the Institute's mandate. The Pretty Princess Institute is a government office. We are obligated, by law, to identify, hold, and reform girls who have become a danger to society. How will your Institute carry out these duties, Saotome-chan?"

She was right. I had forgotten. The Institute was a magical girl reform school. That was its official purpose. Even Artemis pretended to follow the Institute's mandate. As director, I would be equally compelled.

"I guess we do what we have too," I said, grimacing. My gaze flickered into a glare. "But I am doing away with the head games. When reforming girls, we stick to traditional methods."

"I see," Kamiko said, nodding. Her fingers dribbled on the table. "And what will you do when traditional methods prove inadequate?"

"Inadequate?" Akina questioned. "How about inefficient? As a teacher at the Institute, I have learned to appreciate the power of a mental nudge. It has saved a lot of pain and heartache. But Saotome is rather barbaric. Perhaps she would like to bring back the iron maiden?"

"I'm talking detentions, not torture," I said, annoyed.

"Do you know what a reform school is?" Akina asked, scathingly. "Perhaps the Institute has confused you. Most of our girls are rather sweet. A gentle reprimand is usually enough. But we have hard cases, Saotome. We have murders. Explain to me how a detention will fix that."

I scowled. Akina was right, detentions would not be sufficient. The alternatives were hardly better. Imprisonment. Isolation. Punishment. My rainbowed vision of the Institute died. If I were to use such tactics, the Pretty Princess Institute would become a prison.

I did not want to be director of that.

There was a solution. Adjustment. With adjustment, I could reach into a girl's mind and fix problem directly. But that too was horrifying. The trauma and helplessness of my adjustment remained with me. When I looked into the mirror, I shuddered. Always I wondered, who am I and who should I be? Those questions were made all the more haunting by the fear that my answers had been manufactured by someone else.

Then again, did a murder deserve such mercy? Should monsters like Chiyo be left to roam the world? Was it better to fix hateful brats like Fumio than kill them? Adjustment had a corrupting allure. If I started to use it, it would become all too tempting to correct minor problems as well as major.

My scowl grew as I thought. I had no good answers.

"I'll think about it," I said finally. "But, no matter what, the tiaras are gone. Agony is just plain wrong. The Institute should be helping girls, not hurting them."

"This is a difficult moral question, Saotome-chan," Kamiko said. "Do not feel as though you have to answer it now. We can discuss this in greater depth at a later date. Instead, I would like to hear what your intent is with regards to Director Silvervine's legacy."

"Her legacy can burn," I spat. "The Institute is not an army. If the JSDF wants magical girls, they can damn well hire them themselves."

Kamiko lifted her cup. She took several a long drinks as her fingers played upon the table. Eventually, she sighed.

"I see no reason to challenge your candidacy. However, I will hold you to your agreement. You will abide by my instruction. And do not think this is limited to matters of education and leadership, Saotome-chan. As director, you will be in the public eye. Exemplary comportment will be required. Especially with the negative attention your youth will draw. Is this understood?"

I drew a shaky breath. I had said the words. I had meant them. Now they became real. The weight of my fate pressed upon me. Politics was unforgiving. Those who deviated were quashed. To survive the watchful gaze of the public, I would have to be a perfect princess.

"I was the one who offered, wasn't I?"

"I merely wished to be certain that we understood each other, Saotome-chan" Kamiko said. Her eyes hardened. "On that note, will you submit to more radical methods should traditional instruction prove insufficient?"

My hands curled into fists. I forced them open. "If I agree that it will make me a better, director," I said. My eyes became steel, "But I won't be another Artemis. I draw the line at my morals and my art. Got it?"

Kamiko nodded. She closed her eyes for a long moment. "Thank you for your honesty, Saotome-chan. In light of your answers, I have reached a decision. Under the terms and conditions stated, I do formally pledge my support for candidate Saotome."

"I concur," Michiko added.

"It is unanimous then," Akina said with a broad smile. "Which is a relief, because I am fairly sure Saotome intended to kill us if we disagreed."

Kamiko went still. The prospect of murder had yet to cross her mind.

"I was hoping you would change your minds before I got to that part," I admitted. With a thunk, I put my cup on the table. "Well, this went smoother than I thought. I guess the meeting is over then."

"A moment please, Saotome-chan," Kamiko interrupted. "We still have a matter to discuss."

My hand settled on Gungnir. "Really? Because I have nothing to talk about."

"That would be your surrender, Saotome," Akina drawled. Her lips curved into an amused smile. "And since you will refuse, we prepared a cage for you."

I smirked, my hand tightening on Gungnir's shaft. "Heh. Can't say I'm surprised."

All at once, I transcended the wind. In a blur, I climbed the table. Gungnir was thrust. The spear's alien magic warped reality. The blade's aim was such that it would slice through the meat of Akina leaving her vital organs untouched.

Chink!

Gungnir came to a sudden halt. The steel point pierced halfway through a spectral wall. My smile vanished. A barrier. I jumped back. My body slammed into a second wall a few paces behind.

I glanced at Michiko. Sparks shot at the edge of my vision. My eyes jerked up. Embedded in the ceiling were six devices. Colors rippled over their surface, silver fading in and out of camouflage.

I swung. Gungnir's edge slashed across the hidden walls of my prison. Crackling light flared upon the spear's path, marking the surface of my cell. Two meters in radius. I scowled, channeling my irritation into haigeki. Pink light flowed into Gungnir's length. If the blade's law was not enough, I would add my own. With it, I would shred Michiko's shield as though it were paper.

A seal flared below me. Magic was sucked from the air. My illusion was crushed by the fist of reality. Tenki faded into motes of light, transforming my pink dress into casual clothes.

Kinzu. Shit.

My eyes danced across the room. I quickly plucked the chanting shrine maiden and onmyouji from the crowd. It was they who were sealing my magic. Thanks to Michiko's barrier, I could do nothing about it. In frustration, I lashed out again. Gungnir sliced the spectral barrier, peeling away layers of magic as though they were skin.

"The containment cell is dual layered," Michiko explained. The scientist magical woman stood, gesturing toward the components as she lectured. "The internal seal disperses arcane energies. The external barrier suppresses physical motion. Simulations show that the combined system is highly resistant to assault.

"Synchronizing the components was difficult. Suppressive magic naturally shorts the techno-arcane barrier system. Allowing a gap between the internal and external layers was inadvisable. To account for the chaotic shape of the suppressive field, the external barrier was placed in constant flux. The shielding devices recalculate the distribution of power a thousand times a second. Even small system disruptions result in material losses of efficiency."

Drawing my body back, I stabbed. With all my mass behind it, Gungnir punched through the invisible wall. The cut was wasted. The gap sealed itself as soon as the weapon was withdrawn.

"It is meaningless, Saotome-chan," Kamiko said. As she spoke, she reached into a bag at her feet. She withdrew a glittering tiara. "Michiko tested her system thoroughly to ensure it would contain you. I am sorry, but your efforts end here."

A floating, silver disk claimed the tiara. It approached my prison, extended a telescoping arm, then dropped the headdress at my feet.

"Please wear your restraining device, Saotome-chan."

Slowly, I plucked the tiara from the ground. Bitter emotion reigned as I ran my thumb over the glass gems ornamenting the accessory. Agony. I shuddered at the memory of it.

"You think I'm going to wear this?" I asked, unable to hide my distaste. "You should know by now, I am never going back."

"You have no choice, Saotome-chan," Kamiko countered. "If you refuse, we will fill your cell with gas. Please do not make this difficult."

"Heh," I laughed. I quirked a smile. "Sounds like you thought of everything. I'll admit. With a setup like this, there isn't a whole lot I can do." My smile grew into a smirk. "It's kind of funny, getting captured like this. Ironic even. Because this is exactly what we had planned for Artemis."

"What arrogance," Akina said. "I did not think you were one to share your plans with the enemy."

"Oh? And why shouldn't I?" I asked. "Since it is happening right now."

I delighted in the silence permeating the room. Akina stood. Her gaze was penetrating.

"You are bait."

Kamiko turned to Akina. "Most of our forces are here," she said worriedly. "Should we reinforce the Institute?"

"No. We deal with Saotome first," she replied. "The Director can handle herself." Akina faced the other senshi. "Michiko, flood Saotome's cell and contact the fringe groups. Tell them to join us. We move the moment Saotome is secure."

"Is it necessary to move so quickly?" Kamiko asked. "I would prefer to give Saotome-chan more time before resorting to force."

"Our kohai will never surrender," Akina snapped. The woman's violet eyes burned. "She is bait. Every second we wait, the further out of control the situation gets. We end this now." Akina's head shot to the side. "Michiko?"

Michiko frowned while pressing a bud into her ear. "I cannot contact Tulip or Iris," she stated.

Akina's head jerked to me. My smirk grew wider.

"Flood her cell!"

"I hardly think that Saotome-chan's friends-"

"Kamiko, look at her," Akina interrupted, thrusting a finger in my direction. "Does that look like a woman defeated? No, Saotome struts as though she's won."

Air hissed from above. Kamiko glanced around, her unsettled expression growing. A thin mist sprinkled down. Girls began to buzz. The volume of the room was rising as the Institute woke to the fact that things were not going as planned.

I laughed.

"So you are using the gas after all," I commented. "I suppose it is time for me to leave then."

Kamiko's hazel eyes narrowed on me. "Spare us the bluff, Saotome-chan. That barrier is more than strong enough to hold you."

My smirk only grew. "Oh. It's strong alright. I will give you that. Michiko does good work," I said. "But you have two problem. Number one, the shielding devices are too close. Number two, well, this cell isn't so strong from the outside."

With a grin, I glanced over my shoulder. Emiko was standing at the back of the room. In the bustle, she had placed herself a mere pace from the chanting shrine maiden. Her hand settled on the hilt of her sword.

Smart girl.

"Do it."

Kamiko jumped to her feet. "Belay that!"

Emiko did not stop. With one, smooth stroke, Emiko thrust her sword through the left lung of the shrine maiden. The chanting turned to bloody garbles. Bereft of half its support, the seal scattering my magic faltered.

I was already moving.

With a leap, I slammed into a spectral wall. My diminished jump reached a mere two meters, thanks to the suppression of my ki. I rebounded off the surface, ricocheting higher. Two meters became four. Four became six. I reached the second story roof. Twisting in midair, I slammed Gungnir through the wall of my prison. The spear punctured the barrier and split one of six shielding devices down the middle.

My prison wavered. Electric sparks exploded when the fragmented barrier brushed against the mystic seal. Placing both feet on the invisible surface, I wrenched Gungnir free, bounced once more, and stabbed through a second device.

"Stop that girl," Akina shouted, her silvery voice cutting through the din. "Michiko, reinforce Saotome's cell!"

Chaos followed Emiko's assault. The shrine maiden was spilled on the ground, kicked forward to free Emiko's sword. The magic knight threw herself across the hall, her form blurring into a green streak as she targeted the onmyouji opposite her.

It seemed that no one could stop her. Then Akane moved. My fiancée stepped into Emiko's path. Both arms drew back, mist and light writhing until they formed a megalithic piko piko hammer. With a great roar, Akane swung, catching the knight clean on her side.

Piko!

The squeak was almost comic. At first, Emiko hardly moved. Then, all at once, she vanished from my sight. Boom! The bar's wall exploded when a streak of green shot through it.

Akane whirled to face me, eager to prove her worth.

I ripped Gungnir from a third device. I fell. The erratic play of Michiko's magic had turned my prison into a storm of light. Kinzu choked on the remnants of excessive power, letting my ki flow free. I drew my aura. Searing, pink light was channeled into my spear. Without tenki, it lacked perfection. But my megami no ooi was so refined that my strength was reduced to a mere third.

I made up the difference with raw power.

Gungnir's law added nothing to my attack. But this was a divine weapon. A master piece. In terms of weight, balance, and sharpness it challenged perfection. When touched by a warrior's spirit, it acted like a wand. Gungnir drank deep of my ki. It absorbed it. It shaped it. It effortlessly projected my will.

"Tenshi ittou!" I shouted.

The room flashed. A two-dimensional plane of pink cut across the bar. Along the line of my stroke, Michiko's barrier parted like paper. With it split the building itself. The cut was so smooth that the upper level began to slide as a single intact piece.

No good. I needed it to fall.

I fled the seal, tenki crystallizing around me. I twirled Gungnir. Three more blades of pink cut through the building. The haigeki enhanced vacuum blades tore through walls and ceiling. The building crumbled. I dived back, flashing toward the exit carved by Emiko's body.

Akane pursued. With a leap, she was in front of me. I went low, sliding under her hammer's strike. Gungnir flashed out. The haft of my spear teleported through Akane's guard. The steel pole cracked against the side of her skull. My fiancée stumbled backward.

With a final roll, I escaped the collapsing building.

I stood and dusted myself off. I flashed a smile at the magic knight stuck in the concaved surface of the neighboring building.

"You okay there?" I asked.

Emiko struggled to pull herself to her feet. "I c-can still fight, Saotome-sama," she wheezed.

Crumble. Crumble. Stones tumbled from the bar behind me. I glanced back. The rubble stirred. Like the cauldron of a volcano, rocks started to rise and fall. With each pulse debris rained down and the caldera grew higher.

I grimaced. Damn. That was supposed to buy me more time.

"Hold still," I ordered.

I flipped Gungnir to my off hand and seized Emiko's arm. With a jerk, I tore her from the wall. The knight stumbled and slumped against me.

"Thank you, Saotome-sama."

"No problem," I replied. "Now lets-"

Whoomph! Concrete exploded from broken bar. A quintet of oni drew themselves to their full height. With spectral shields, they shoved rock aside. An annoyed Akina stood on the bar room table. The other senshi were gathered at her side. Kamiko crouched, her head shielded by her arms. Michiko was unmoved, her trust in her magic absolute. A score of nearby girls dusted themselves off as they rallied to their leaders.

Akina opened her throat. A sharp note pierced the heavens. Her cry was louder than a fog horn and more beautiful than an instrument. The air began to tremble. The oscillating atmosphere formed a colossal dome over the broken bar. The rubble rattled, cracked, then shattered into dust. More girls rose from beneath the gray morass.

The eyes of the army veered toward me. Girls pointed and voices shouted. They started to charge, rising like a tide over the broken building. A crowd of shikigami took the lead.

I threw Emiko over my shoulder and ran.

With two rapid twists, I scurried through the back alleys. Bang. Bang. Bang. Sparkling light exploded behind me in a barrage of artillery fire. Oni pushed through the clouds of dust and shrapnel, their three meters of height lending them speed.

With one last turn, I skid to a stop. With my right hand, I snatched a long chain dangling from a towering roof. I tugged twice while swinging Gungnir to face the fray.

Tenshi osakebi, I thought, channeling haigeki. Magic pooled in Gungnir's shaft then burst from the spear's tip as a bullet. Two lances of pink light ripped through three oni. The giant monsters burst into smoke. Fluttering seals turned to ash.

A third shot followed. The pink bullet stabbed through the cloud, then reflected up to hit the third story of the alley wall. The two oni slowed to a stop. The demons knelt, raising silver disks. Invisible shields shrouded the alley, seen only through the displaced dust.

"Hurry up, damn it" I growled at the heavens.

Girls swarmed around the oni's feet, bypassing the manufactured demons. The first to charge were those wielding swords and spears. Behind them, girls hefted mystic rods and magic staffs. Poor coordination closed the lines of fire, wasting much of the Institute's strength.

Leveling Gungnir, I prepared another shot. Before I could fire, my right arm jerked up, dragging me into the sky. Emiko wobbled on my shoulder. Cringing, I adjusted my grip before she tumbled into the alley below.

Whoosh! A giant boulder, wrapped in chain, flashed past me to crash upon the shikigamis' heads.

The crude elevator sent me soaring seven stories into the sky. I released the guiding chain as we approached the top. Gravity dragged at my velocity, slowing my ascent so that I landed perfectly on the tower's parapet.

"About time," I growled, shooting a nasty glare at the white robed amazon. "Were you trying to get me killed?"

"As if I would be so fortunate," Mousse lamented.

The boy kicked a broken hunk of rooftop. It tumbled over the parapet and onto the crowd below. Mousse gazed over the edge. He danced back a second later. Feathers, flowers, and fire hit the building in a torrential rain. Two meters of rooftop vaporized. The cries below grew louder when tumbling debris punished the assault.

Mousse laughed and posed tauntingly. "Fools!" he cried. "All is my weapon. Strike this building, and this building will strike you!"

The boy skittered back before anyone dared to attack. Casually, he folded his arms across his chest so that his hands were hidden in the crossed sleeves.

"And you, Saotome? How dare you whine about my lateness while cavorting with another girl. Is my Shampoo not enough? Must you steal every woman you lay your eyes upon?"

Emiko wiggled in my arms. "Saotome-sama would never do such a thing," she chided.

I set the knight on the ground. "Yeah," I said, nodding. "Those girls came to me. I haven't stolen anything."

"You make light of Shampoo's love? Die, villain!" Mousse shouted.

Dozens of sharp weapons exploded from Mousse's robes. I watched the display with bored disinterest. Instead of me, Mousse perforated an innocent transformer. Absently, I noted that the fool had not wasted any seals. Thank god for small favors.

Emiko tensed at Mousse's threat. Her fear became confusion. I patted her shoulder to ease her worries.

"Save the hissy fit for later, Donald," I drawled. "Is everything in order?"

Mousse turned. He turned again. Finally, the boy put on his glasses and found me. If Mousse was embarrassed about killing commercial equipment, he did not show it.

"I prepared everything as my darling Shampoo commanded," he said, stiffly.

"At least you are good for something," I snorted. I ignored his huff of indignation. "For now we work the roofs. Run the girls in circles. If you can, try to isolate a few and take them down. No kills. But don't be soft, either. Magical girls recover quickly.

"Once we've tied them in a few knots, we rally at-"

My orders cut off. To the East rose an airplane. Folded paper formed wings and fuselage. The triangular craft floated on the wind, winding its way higher. Standing in the airplane's crimp were three oni. The demons pounded crude clubs into open hands, their fearsome faces leering.

I aimed Gungnir. "Tenshi osakebi."

The spear recoiled like a cannon. A pink lance streaked through the sky, range and velocity amplified by my weapon. The bullet caught the craft at the tail. The fuselage fractured on impact, unleashing a spray of incendiary confetti.

Its core obliterated, the airplane veered into a deadly descent. The wings tore free. The oni fell to their death. Fluttering sheets of paper chased from behind.

Five more ships spiraled into view.

"Shit!" I spat. My gaze shot to the white robed boy. "Change of plans. Take Emiko to Cologne. I will meet up with you when I am finished with this mess."

"I will fight with you, Saotome-sama," Emiko volunteered.

I grunted in annoyance and fired a series of blasts. The first two obliterated a charging transport. A second, more distant, cargo ship turned in time to evade. I calculated my effective range. Half a kilometer.

"No you won't. You will be more use to Cologne," I argued. I forced Emiko to meet my eyes. "Cologne is the shriveled up gnome. For the rest of this battle, treat her orders as mine. Got it?"

Emiko's gaze dropped. "As you command, Saotome-sama," she said softly.

A single craft endured my anti-aircraft fire. A trio of shikigami leapt from the burning airplane. With reckless courage, they stampeded our position.

A pair of chains sprang from Mousse's robes. A steel claw ripped the face off the first demon. A kusarigama hooked in to bisect the others.

While Mousse handled melee, I continued to fire at the circling aircraft. Two paper constructs were torn from the sky. A larger ship replaced them. Instead of oni, it carried a quartet of magical girls. I took aim. Pink light splashed when it met an invisible shield.

The crew returned fire, their pitiful aim made worse by their unstable platform.

I leaned to the side, avoiding a spray of carrots. With squinted eyes, I spotted two of Michiko's silver disks belted to the aircraft's top.

"It's a freaking gunship," I complained.

I turned to Mousse. The robed boy casually finished five oni with as many strokes of his swords.

"Where is our line of retreat?"

"Retreat?" the boy asked scornfully. "There is no retreat. You will die here, alone, surrounded by an endless sea of foes."

A ray of rainbow light flowed over my shoulder. With her sheath, Emiko slapped the magic into the sky. Her shuken quaked, but held. The magic knight crouched defensively, her eyes tracking the targets. With the weapons she wielded, there was little she could do.

A pair of witches zoomed overhead, strafing the rooftop with fire and ice.

"In case you've forgotten, idiot, you're stuck here too."

Mousse's cackles slowed to a stop. Delight faded as he realized the fatal flaw in his murderous plot. I shook my head at his incompetence.

"Why am I the one stuck with all the morons?" I grumbled. "I bet Hikaru and Syaoran don't have to deal with this kind of shit." A memory of Fumio's hateful visage countered my complaints. I ignored it.

I slammed Gungnir's butt into the roof twice. The spear left nice, rounded holes in the concrete. Spindles of black and white twine flowed from the sleeves of my dress, weaving themselves into rope. The lengthening strands snaked their way down one hole and up the other. They tied themselves in knot.

Coils of rope rapidly gathered at my feet.

I looked to the sky. A ceaseless swarm of aerial oni approached on paper wings. I aimed Gungnir. A spattering of pink blasts annihilated a full half of the transports. Mousse and Emiko held off the horde that landed, ripping through oni with a casual ease.

With the approaching crowd thinned, I left the fight to them. Instead, I peered at a three story building a quarter of a kilometer away. I rolled my shoulders and judged the distance. Easy enough. With three running steps, I threw Gungnir. The spear slashed through the sky, dragging behind it a whipping line. The weapon sank deep into its target.

"Take Emiko and go," I ordered. My eyes swept over the growing army. I smirked. "As for me? I am going to teach these girls a thing or two about air superiority."

Light glinted off the lens of Mousse's glasses. "Don't expect any thanks, Saotome," the boy growled.

With a dash, he was off. Emiko let out a squeak when the Joketsuzoku warrior scooped her from the roof. With a great leap, Mousse caught the zip line with a loop of chain. The two flashed across the open road and over an intervening building. Far from the ensuing conflict, they disappeared into the streets below.

Cargo planes ferried oni to my roof. With resistance diminished, the crowd ballooned. The number approached two score. The gunship circled overhead. Cautiously it approached, its fear waning when I did nothing to drive it back.

I looked upon my foes and laughed.

Years ago, I had watched my fiancée handle a crowd twice this size. To be fair, few of them had been fighters. Fewer still had possessed the monstrous physique of demons. But I was stronger, faster, and tougher than Akane. I had tenki.

This was not war. This was entertainment. And I would be sure to enjoy it.

With a whoop, I charged. The swarm of shikigami met me head on.

Great clubs crashed down. I danced amongst them, leaves brushing my face and twigs scratching my dress. The circling gunship opened fire. The witches added to the brew, unleashing columns of fire and towers of ice. I cavorted in the chaos. With gentle steps, I wove between legs and ran over heads.

I did not lift a finger in offense.

I did not have to.

On this cluttered battlefield, friendly fire was in abundance. Oni attacked, their wild swings bruising their brothers. The gunship hammered my position, aiming at the flashes of my dress. Firing into melee was hard under the best of conditions. Doing so while moving was a recipe for disaster.

Magic tore the shikigami apart. They exploded into clouds of mystic smoke. With the field obscured, what little aim there was disintegrated into random assault.

I emerged from the crowd and rushed the parapet. I pulled my shuken tight, easing the quivers of my damaged aura. I imbued upon it fantasy and jumped.

Silk wings burst from my back. I glided, my fall transformed into a floating curve. I opened a hand. Ribbon poured from my dress, twining itself into a solid rod. I threw the harpoon. The tip punched through the wing of a transport plane. I grabbed the line with both hands and pulled.

The aircraft dipped from the force. Oni tumbled over the side as the airplane began to dive. Elastic thread amplified my motion. As though fired from a catapult, I sprang into the air. With my velocity increased, my glide became flight.

Magic flashed across my vision.

I flew over the main street, the bulk of the Institute's army in view. The girls had spotted me, but the range and angle made the shot all but impossible. I zoomed in with my glasses, grabbing the chance to steal intelligence from my enemy.

Jutting from the bar's ruins was a silvery structure. Three metallic pillars surrounded an empty platform. Attached to the monstrosity were thick cords wrenched from the earth. Tokyo's electric grid fed Michiko's magic.

Beside the device was the onmyouji. She tossed onto the platform a paper seal. The pillars glowed, electric arcs stretching between them. The giant arms began to spin, shedding a shower of light. An oni took form. The machine slowed. The demon stepped off the platform and another paper seal took his place.

The mass manufactured shikigami gathered in a reserve squad. From there they were section off. Half the conjured troops were sent to join the legion of infantry, disposable trash to guard the Institute's girls. The rest were sent to a second staging area. There a lone girl folded giant sheets of paper into airplanes.

My focus snapped to the battle. I was passing over my target. I dived. In less than a second, I slammed into the gunship's shields. The spectral barrier flared at my touch.

The mystic surface was like glass. My heeled shoes slipped then stuck, shuken granting perfect traction. The crew scrambled, shocked by my presence. They raised their weapons. Pretty rods and cutesy staffs glowed ominously.

"Tenshi osakebi!" I yelled.

I slapped my palms atop the barrier. Magic detonated. The shaped explosion blasted through the shields in a spear of pink light. It punched through a paper wing. Burning confetti unraveled and the gunship began to list.

The barrier shattered and I fell through intangible air. The crew lurched, spraying magic in every direction. My arms were numb and my hands sang with tortured pain. Not daring to use them, I opened my assault with kicks. The first two blows sent girls flying from the paper craft.

My luck changed.

My onward rush had left shuken exhausted. Bereft of its defense, random chance caused the princess's wand to sway in my direction. Rainbow light sprayed across my chest, blowing me out into midair.

Colorful spots floated through my vision and warm fuzz spread through my veins. Dizzily, I blinked. A bubbly happiness eclipsed the aching of my ribs. I giggled, delighting in the wonderment.

A witch blurred past The girl dived at a sixty degree angle, her pointy hat staying in place in defiance to physics. The witch reached out, catching Carrotcake in her open arms.

At the same moment, I snagged the witch's broom with my thread.

Stunned by the weight of her friend, the witch failed to notice the second mass. She swerved up, accelerating anew. I was dragged forward, my body still swinging down with weight of gravity. High heeled shoes hit the road and skidded over asphalt as though it were water. With a bound, I flew into the sky. I twisted at the end of my rope, ricocheting off buildings as I built speed. My threads grew shorter with each passing second.

"Weee!" I exclaimed with giddy delight.

The broom veered over a roof then slowed. Carrotcake hit the ground. The witch spotted me. Her mouth gaped as I continued my flight. She fumbled her wand then whipped out a flare of fire into my path.

I blew through the spread of flames as though they were wind.

Barely singed, I slammed onto the back of the broom. The pole sagged. The bristles scrapped across ground. My momentum sent us spinning over the building's edge. The world rolled around us. The witch flailed and screamed.

"Eeaaah!"

Riding side saddle, I laughed. Thanks to the princess's rainbow burst, I was brimming with a child's delight.

The witch found her center before we hit ground. Desperately, she seized the broom's shaft. The spinning slowed and our fall straightened into flight.

"Hi," I said, leaning over the witch's shoulder.

The witch looked back and gulped. Fearfully, she raised her wand. The heart tipped stick shook between her fingers. I offered a beaming smile and placed a gentle hand on her neck. My haigeki burned through her shuken. Threads of pink slid into the gap before plunging into the witch's skin. They wiggled, burrowed, then wrapped around her spine.

Connection.

Suddenly, I could taste the dryness of her mouth. I could feel the trembling of her muscles. I knew the fear burbling in her gut. The witch's feelings were my feelings. Yet, they were distant. That was the nature of this circuit. She was the one bound by my thread. With them I could pluck her nerves and make her dance.

The witch was my puppet.

It was a grotesque magic. I despised it. It reminded me of what I had become. XT-11. If I pushed, I could enslave her completely. I could feel my spirit melting into the nerves of her spine. If I wanted to, I could place in those threads whatever feelings I desired. Then I could cut them off, letting them ride in her soul, a parasite attached to an unwilling host.

Or so I speculated. It was Cologne who had pushed me to try my magic. At her encouragement, and Mousse's unwilling assistance, I had learned to control others. But never had I taken the plunge into the abyss.

The witch's soul twisted in my grasp. Her haigeki clawed at my dominion, seeking to tear the threads that controlled her. I formed a thought and sent it scurrying along the wire. I'm a friend. A senshi. You want to serve me. The idea smashed through her skull. The witch shuddered. Her demeanor shifted. Fear evaporated, replaced by soaring joy. She wanted to be my puppet.

This was what Shizue had done to me. Her dollification had bypassed my resistance. With a single tweak, my mind had switched from foe to ally. I remembered the feelings she had given me. The terrifying emptiness. The sweetness of submission. Rainbow brightness turned to gray when touched by that bitterness.

"Forward," I commanded.

The witch responded to my will. We surged forward, flying higher as we picked up speed. We zoomed amongst buildings, banking and rolling to round the curves.

In a flash, we were back to the main battlefield.

The Institute's main force had moved. The thick ranks stood at the foot of the three story structure bearing Gungnir. Two centuries of shikigami were positioned at the wings. Air transports buzzed through the sky, dropping more oni onto rooftops.

I smirked at the sight. How convenient. I had been wondering how I would get Institute's attention. And here they were, giving me the opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

With a mental nudge, the witch increased her speed.

The mob opened fire. Magic filled the sky with fanciful death. I controlled our flight by remote, pulling us into a wide roll to evade the scattered strikes.

The assault was too thick.

I had caught the mob dead on. All thirty girls chained their attacks. At this range, their lack of skill proved no detriment. The volume of fire itself was enough to guarantee hits. I grit my teeth and shoved my shuken forward. By nature, my defense was elegance. With skill, I transformed it into barrier.

Thread exploded from my dress. It wove itself into a wall of checkered cloth. A dozen attacks tore at its surface. The blows shuddered through my spirit, ripping fabric and thinning my shuken. The intensity only grew worse as I neared the throng.

I was not going to make it.

"Damn," I growled.

With a twitch, new orders were transmitted. The witch veered left. We vanished into a narrow alley. Enemy fire ceased, blocked by thick buildings. We flew low, circling the Institute's army. If a frontal assault was too much, I would claim Gungnir from another direction.

A dark cloud passed overhead.

I looked up. A torrent of arrows obscured the sun. My eyes traced their arc to a towering building. Seven stories tall, the same one I had abandoned. I knew it instantly from the cord that ran from the roof to where Gungnir rested.

Magic gathered. A halo of light crowned the tower. At the highest point, I spotted a girl drawing her bow. Around her, a legion of oni did the same.

They fired.

The first sheet of arrows fell upon us. The witch swung to the side. The shower of death gave chase. A thousand homing bullets flowed into the streets. The projectiles swirled as they pursued, looking like a cloud of angry bees.

I leaned forward, my breasts pressing into the witch's back. I blended my shuken with hers. Our fantasies tangled. The sensation was disturbingly intimate. It felt as though our souls were becoming one. Th-thud. Th-thud. Our hearts beat in sync. My power was added to hers. The broom bucked beneath us then exploded forward with increased acceleration.

With rolls, turns, and dives, we navigated a series of structures at a blinding pace. The arrows screamed after us. The wooden spears turned too slow. Glass burst and cement walls were turned to porcupines. Explosions of purifying light echoed in the wake.

Arrows fell like rain. Wave after wave was unleashed. We rounded a corner. I glared at the sky. I saw blue through the whirling mass.

"Up."

The broom went vertical.

We climbed. The swirling mass of darkness twisted around us. The flock of angry missiles closed in from every angle except above. So thick were the arrows that they shrouded the world in a curtain of death.

With a whoosh, we flashed over the parapet of the tower. The archer rested on her bow, drawing heavy breaths. Wearily, she raised her head. She glanced from side to side in hopes of spotting me. She froze when the witch passed over her.

I dropped from the broom, lengths of thread keeping me attached. I swung, feet forward, my body half a meter above the cement blurring below.

Thud!

The archer folded over my shoes. The blow carried her ten meters before I kicked her free. She tumbled seven stories to the street below. I glanced back. The torrent of arrows swept over the roof, undeterred in their pursuit.

Tch! My expression fell. Then, just as fast, it rose when I saw the angle of their flight. I broke into a wide smirk.

The witch dragged us over the battlefield. The Institutes's army seethed below. This time both speed and angle favored me. The distance between us was too small, and the whole of the army was not facing me. I separated from the broom, flying so fast that I barely needed the wings that formed on my back. The witch turned down, flashing past me as she dived into the crowd.

A thousand heat seeking arrows followed.

The cries of the Institute and the rush of the air hid the first bars of Akina's song. Four acoustic bullets lashed out. Three flew wide, the hurried shots unable to catch me in midair. That last took me in the chest. The blast of sound sent me spinning. Air was driven from my lungs and my bones were vibrated to numbness.

I hit the roof. The impact dislocated my right shoulder. Somehow, I tumbled into a controlled roll. I crossed half the roof in a blink. I flashed to my feet, wrenching Gungnir free as I slid past. The spear span in my grip, slaughtering four shikigami with a single stroke.

Two more pulses of sound crashed into my weakened shuken. Gungnir danced in answer, severing the magic as easy as flesh.

"Even an army does not deter you," Akina remarked. "You are fearless."

I shrugged my shoulder back into place. The cool touch of shuken eased the pain. "I just wanted to drop in and say hello."

"And Kamiko accused me of excessive exuberance. I begin to wonder if I brought enough girls." Akina's ruby lips were curved with mirth. She flowed into a curtsy. "May I have this dance, kohai?"

I curtsied back. "It would be a delight, senpai. But, I must refuse. Pressing matters and all that."

A dozen shikigami stirred upon the roof. Two armed and armored magical girls backed them. The group curved in front of me, hoping to force me toward the army at my flank. Lilac was at Akina's side. She held her flower rod ready, her cute, puffed up face showing anger.

"How elegant. Did a few of my lessons take?" Akina asked. Her smile stretched. "But there is no need to rush. If not I, then perhaps you would favor Michiko?"

Wind roared. A monstrous battleship floated into view. The giant aircraft was twice as big as the others, and its body was made of aluminum foil. Four bulky shielding devices were built into the battleship's wings. A pair of heavy cannons were welded to the underbelly.

As crew, the battleship bore a contingent of girls. Six wielded long ranged weapons. Two were equipped for melee combat. Piloting the device was Michiko herself. The weapon system seethed with her power.

The cannons glowed. Screeeeeeee!

The brilliant beams shattered the air. The sky went white. I dived to the side while lifting Gungnir. The first lance missed by centimeters. The second caught the spear's mirrored blade. Coached by my shuken, light reflected, slicing across the mass of shikigami on my left. The demons evaporated into smoke. The magical girl amongst them was blown from her feet.

Gungnir's steel shaft burned in my palms.

An angel's song filled the silence. Sonic bullets fell on my position. Lilac danced. The battleship showed its broadside. The girls manning the ship opened fire. Explosions tore the building apart.

I was in motion. With twirling acrobatics, I flowed through the fire. Shuken crumbled under the assault. I beat a fast retreat, not foolish enough to face the overwhelming force. With a hop, I was off the roof and in the middle of an alley.

A sea of shikigami met me. Gungnir flickered, turning demons into dust and smoke. A spattering of magical girls rushed in, backed by infinite oni. I pressed forward. Gungnir was like lighting. With rapid thrusts I ripped through the army. Nothing that stood within three meters of me survived. Every strike of Gungnir slew an oni. Every swing felled a girl.

The battleship swung into view. The cannons glowed with deadly intent. Screeeeeeee! The air shook and the alley lit with daylight sun. I rolled low to avoid the deadly shots, my shoulders seared by the heat. I jumped to my feet, forcing my shattered shuken back into place.

The shikigami pressed closer.

Pushing through the crowd was too slow. I took to the sky. With a single bound I was on a demon's head. I ran forward, using walls, shoulders, and weapons as foot holds.

Rays and bullets flew past me as magical girls fired into the openings. An assault of flowers drew blood from my hip. Akina crossed over head, her golden skirt fluttering as she leapt from roof-to-roof. Fast paced notes pierced the cacophony.

A fist of air smashed me to the ground.

I pounded into the concrete so hard that black splattered through my vision. Dizzily, I rolled to my feet, thankful that the attack had destroyed all the shikigami around me.

The battleship slipped back into view.

I threw myself into the nearest building.

Glass shattered when I crashed through the window. The crystal edges barely scratched, my supernatural toughness too great for mundane concerns. Screeeeeeee! The alley exploded with light. Beams carved trenches along the road.

I stood, firing a few tenshi osakebi through the portal to deter pursuit.

With a dash, I vanished into the vacant department store. My fingers flashed over the rim of my glasses, cycling for aura mode. An army of oni and girls maneuvered outside the building's walls, looking like a glob of violet light oozing in chase. The battleship hovered overhead, bright green even when hidden by multiple walls. Fainter still were the paper airplanes that flashed through the sky, transporting girls in hope of cutting me off.

Screeeeeeee! The cannons fired again. White light stabbed through the wall mere paces from me. Cement exploded from the heat. Dribbles of steaming lava rained upon me, burning flesh.

Daylight flowed into the department store. The now visible battleship leaned slightly, giving the crew a line of fire. Glowing bullets rained down in machine gun fire. I continued to run. The stream of magic pursued, tearing the building apart.

So that's how you want to play it? I smirked. Fine with me. But they better not cry when I made the game more interesting.

I swerved and charged the battleship. The elements of love, light, and beauty fell as a destructive apocalypse. I faced the onslaught head on. A few moments of breathing room had repaired my shuken. Skill and magic joined as one. With casual ease, I deflected the spells with the well timed parries of my spear.

With a leap, I passed through the hole the girls had carved. The angle of flight sent me sailing toward a second building. I leveled Gungnir.

"Tenshi osakebi."

A pink blast erupted from Gungnir's tip. The adjacent wall blew in. I fell through the aperture. Heeled shoes touched tiled floor. I pushed off, my dash resumed without the slightest pause. Akina, in her midnight blouse, floated in behind. A haunting melody filled the hall, followed by a quartet of acoustic bombs.

I hopped, pushing off a wall in an acrobatic spin. The invisible bullets detonated around me.

I shot Akina a grin, then vanished amongst display cabinets.

"Decide to join me, senpai?" I called out.

"To corner the boar, one must send in the hounds," Akina commented. "As savage as that role may be, I find that I am the only one able to bay at the beast."

Akina's words lifted into song. Spears of sound, painted a ghastly green by my glasses, took form ahead of me. I dived low, passing under them before flipping back to my feet. Screeeeeeee! A pair of beams tore through the wall. Shuken took hold, twisting my body so that the lances of white flowed to either side.

With a moments pause, I jumped through the hole created.

I dropped four meters into the alley below. Above, Michiko's battleship twisted to gain an angle of fire. I dashed away, zig zagging through a sequence of tight turn. Akina gave chase. A torrent of oni filtered in from behind. Paper airplanes streaked overhead to dump their cargo in my path.

I came to a stop.

Fifty meters away, nosing into a narrow corridor of solid brick, was Michiko's battleship. The magical girls bearing melee weapons dropped from the ship's wings. Paper airplanes stopped just behind, adding four more girls and a dozen shikigami to the mix.

Akina's dash slowed to a crawl. She held up a hand. The army behind her slowed.

"It was a merry chase while it lasted, Saotome, but your luck has run out," Akina observed.

I laughed. Lazily, I placed Gungnir on my shoulder while I turned to face her. "Yeah," I said cheerfully. "There is no running from this."

Akina's breath froze. Her head snapped to the sheer brick walls of the alley. The corridor was five stories in height. I stood at the center. Behind me was Michiko's battleship. Ahead was Akina, an army of shikigami, and a twisted series of alleys that would stifle retreat.

I spread my arms in greeting. "Welcome to my killing field."

The alley walls exploded.

-oOo-

Ending Notes:

Trivia

Petawatt – A unit of measure defining the energy output in a second. A petawatt is 1x10^15 watts. That is enough energy to power the entire modern world fifty-times over.

Thunderdome – From Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Two men enter, one man leaves.

Piko Piko Hammer – A child's toy hammer. The piko piko hammer is named after the piko sounding squeak it produces on impact.

Techniques:

List of techniques mentioned or appearing. Common Ranma ½ techniques are not included. All martial arts / ki / ki-like techniques are in (crappy) Japanese. Most magical girl powers are in English.

Tenshi Ittou [lit. Angel Blade] –Using Gungnir as a vector, Ranma generates a haigeki based vacuum blade. The resultant magic acts as a sword a dozen meters long.

As with all mystical cutting attacks, Tenshi ittou produces a blade the sharpness of which is inversely proportionate to the spiritual resistance of the target. Objects with low resistance, usually inanimate objects, are cut with trivial effort. Creatures and people with great spiritual resistance are instead bludgeoned.

Kairai Ito [lit Puppet Thread] – A lesser version of the Unmei Nuu Ito. Kairai produces temporary enslavement. This technique requires precision insertion to activate. Unconsciousness or minimal spiritual resistance are also musts, otherwise the intrusive threads will degrade. However, once in place the spell can be used to quickly end resistance through mental subversion.

After activation, the kairai ito has a range limit of half a kilometer. Also, the mental burden of the spell increases with the number of peopled controlled. Ranma's realistic limit is half a dozen.