Disclaimer: I don't own Ranma 1/2 or Sailor Moon in any way, shape or form. All associated characters, trademarks, etc. are the property of Rumiko Takahashi and Naoko Takeuchi. I'm just telling some stories about them.

Author's Note: This fic is Part Two of the "Dark Lords of Nerima" series. Since this is a sequel, it's highly recommended to read both the first fic, as well as the interlude fic that follows it, before reading this one, since otherwise it may be a bit perplexing why the characters are in the situations they are.

And now, without further ado...

The Dark Lords Ascendant

Chapter One: Before the Storm

Night had fallen on Nerima.

It was a calm, quiet night—which was a precious reprieve for many of that ward's inhabitants. No shouts or crashes broke the expectant silence. No dueling martial artists leapt from rooftop to rooftop under the moonlight. No strange creatures roamed the streets. It felt almost as if the ward itself were holding its breath, waiting in anticipation.

Amidst all of this, amidst the peace and the calm and the quiet, in the guest room of the Tendo family home, Saotome Ranma slept... and dreamed of the past.

"Left!" Ranma shouted in exasperation, as he crawled through the dark, cramped tunnel after Ryouga, even as Mousse in turn crawled behind him. "I said left, not right! And stop going down! We don't need to go any deeper than this!"

"What are you talking about, Ranma?" the lost boy shouted back over the repeated blasts of his Bakusai Tenketsu as he tunneled further down into the earth. "I'm not going any deeper!"

"Yes you are, moron!" Ranma resisted the urge to bash his head into the tunnel wall, wondering what on earth had possessed him to suggest this plan. In theory, the Bakusai Tenketsu was absolutely ideal for moving right through the earth itself. In theory, the technique allowed them to tunnel far faster than any normal excavation could have dreamed. In theory, what they were trying to do should have taken mere minutes.

In practice, however, when the one using the technique was a member of the Hibiki family, that was most decidedly not the case. Ryouga's ability to hold a steady course or follow directions was abysmal enough even at the best of times, but down under the ground—with nothing but blank rock to gauge his position against—it became positively nightmarish.

Up ahead, the sounds of blasting continued... until suddenly Ryouga let out a startled cry and tumbled out of sight as the earth before him gave way without warning. Ranma crawled over to see what had happened, and then let out a groan.

"Looks like we got turned around worse than I realized," he called back to Mousse, as he watched Ryouga climb back to his hands in the cramped space he had fallen into. "We just hit one of our tunnels from earlier, and I don't even recognize which one it is. I guess we oughta just head back to the surface and get our bearings. Even I don't know which way is which anymore."

It's like Ho'o Peak all over again... the pigtailed fighter thought to himself, shaking his head. Then, too, the three martial artists had tried to tunnel their way out of the depths of the Phoenix People's mountain, and they were having no better luck directing Ryouga's course now than they'd had back then. The result was the same in both cases: a growing labyrinth of convoluted, criss-crossing passages leading everywhere but where they wanted to go.

"Wait." It was Mousse who had spoken up. Glancing back over his shoulder, Ranma saw a strange, unreadable expression on the face of the glasses-wearing warrior. "Going back to the surface may not be necessary. There is... some new training I have been undertaking recently. It may help us find the right direction with less delay."

Ranma's eyebrows went up a little, and then he shrugged. "Worth a shot, I guess. What kind of a technique is it?"

"It is still... very imperfect at the moment," warned Mousse, not exactly answering Ranma's question. "So it would be best if you two kept as quiet as possible." Then without further explanation he closed his eyes, his brow furrowing in concentration. Then he reached out and gave a quick rap on the tunnel wall with a single knuckle.

For a few seconds, Ranma waited in silence. Then Mousse opened his eyes. "We're actually not that far from our goal," he said. "Have Ryouga keep following the tunnel we just hit for about seven yards, if you can. Then when it starts to curve try to get him to make a turn in the opposite direction. After that, you just need to keep him going in a straight line."

That, of course, was far easier said than done. "Just" keeping Ryouga going in a straight line when he was leading the way was two steps short of impossible. There were still countless wrong turns to endure, and Mousse ended up needing to repeat his strange trick two more times. Ranma wondered privately why the hidden weapons master had been undergoing such odd training in the first place, but Mousse seemed extremely uncomfortable talking about it, and the pigtailed fighter decided not to press the issue.

Eventually, Ranma noticed that their tunnel was starting to hit dark crystal instead of ordinary rock, and he knew that they were indeed getting close. Then, at last, they burst up out of the tunnel and climbed out into a full-fledged hallway made entirely out of the same crystal they had just been digging through.

They were in. All in all, with Mousse's unexpected method of helping, it had taken them a mere three hours to accomplish. It was, Ranma reflected, probably some kind of record where the lost boy was concerned, not that Ryouga looked particularly joyful about it.

Then again, there wasn't really much at all that Ryouga looked particularly joyful about these days.

"The décor is certainly... interesting..." muttered Mousse, squinting a little through his glasses as he looked around. It was as if they were standing in a hall of mirrors. Everything was made of crystal, reflecting and refracting their images at bizarre angles that shifted constantly as the three of them began to walk down the passage.

"Creepy is what I call it," put in Ranma. His every sense was alert, ready for action at a moment's notice, but no enemies appeared to challenge them. It seemed that their entrance had been undetected so far.

The place was almost as much of a maze as Ryouga's tunnels had been. They wandered up and down the halls, sometimes finding the occasional door that would lead them into empty rooms or yet other hallways. Eventually they stumbled across a spiraling staircase that they followed upward and upward to the highest floor that it reached. After that, the next door they opened led them unexpectedly to a small exterior ledge, from which they could see the full scale of the structure they had been sneaking around inside.

The huge black crystal towered over the surrounding buildings, dwarfing them. The three martial artists were standing on one of the asymmetric protrusions that jutted out every which way from the main body of the crystal. Its height offered Ranma a sweeping, panoramic view of the city below.

He could also see several news helicopters circling back and forth through the air around the structure. They had been covering the story since the crystal had appeared, as the attention of the city focused itself on the inexplicable phenomenon. None of the reporters had been able to enter the crystal itself, however. Access had been prevented by an invisible energy shield—the same shield that the three martial artists had so recently tunneled underneath.

And finally, high above everything swirled a seething vortex of purple energy. It was centered directly over the dark structure, blotting out the sky, as though reality itself were draining away into a hole in the heavens. Ranma felt a small shudder run through him—one that had little to do with the sudden blast of cold wind that he had exposed himself to by stepping outside at this altitude.

The pigtailed fighter hadn't particularly expected to find himself back in Juuban like this. With the world-ending threat of Metallia gone, there shouldn't have been any need. The Sailor Senshi were more than capable of protecting the area from any random, run-of-the-mill monsters that happened to crop up, just as he took care of any that showed up in Nerima.

But this... whatever this was, it was no ordinary problem. And in the end, even the risk of re-igniting his problems with the Sailor girls hadn't been enough to keep him from investigating it himself, to try and figure out just what on earth was going on here.

With one last glance up at the foreboding vortex, Ranma backed through the door again and re-entered the crystalline structure. All this searching, and they still hadn't found any sign of who—or what—was behind this thing suddenly appearing out of nowhere. He would have expected to have seen someone by now. But the place seemed utterly empty and deathly quiet. And that was starting to unsettle Ranma more than swarms of minions would have.

They continued to search, none of them saying much. The further they went, the more Ranma felt the tension in his stomach increase. There's gotta be someone here, somewhere... he thought. So where are they?

Eventually, the trio turned a corner and found themselves facing a sprawling chamber filled with towering pillars that stretched up to an incredible height. The young warriors spread out, moving silently from column to column as they made their way through the vast space. Ranma licked his lips. He was getting a bad feeling about this place, one that was only getting worse with each step they took.

Deeper and deeper they went. Until, at last, they reached a small clearing in the forest of pillars. In the center of that clearing was a circular section of the floor that had been slightly lowered, forming a shallow inset. And in the center of that inset sat a single, hunched figure.

Its back was toward the three of them. No details of its form could be seen, as it was wrapped completely in a dark cowl. Ranma could actually sense ki from it—it was alive, technically—but its presence was decayed and twisted beyond that of any human Ranma had ever encountered. He exchanged glances with Ryouga and Mousse, who both nodded. He didn't know what exactly this... thing... was, but he was willing to bet that it was what they were looking for.

"Hey!" Ranma called out, as they stepped out from the ranks of columns and into the open space. "Are you the one who planted this crystal in the middle of the city? Mind telling us why you did it?"

There was a moment of silence. Then, still sitting, the cowled figure levitated into the air, rotating slowly toward them. Its face still could not be seen, hidden deep in the shadow of its hood. It was holding a crystal sphere of some sort, which hovered in midair between the figure's hands. Those hands were the only part of its body that was visible, and they seemed to ooze with a chaotic shift of color and pattern, each color a putrid brown or green or red.

"How did you enter the crystal?" the figure demanded in a harsh, distorted voice. "I specifically instructed Black Lady to set up a barrier field around the immediate perimeter. How were you able to penetrate it?"

"Oh, we're real good at getting into places we ain't supposed to be," shot back Ranma. "Now answer the question."

The hooded figure regarded them without speaking for a few seconds longer. Then it looked down at its crystal ball, and an image appeared briefly in it, showing a white-haired man in a white uniform sitting on a throne-like chair, a pensive expression on his face. Seeing that, the cowled figure made a satisfied noise, and looked back up at Ranma.

"You have come at a very delicate juncture in my plans," he said. There was a strange note to his voice, one Ranma couldn't quite put his finger on. It was almost as if the hooded figure wasn't really talking to them at all. Almost as if it were carrying on a conversation with itself, one that the three of them just happened to be privy to. "Since I do not wish to occupy my attention dealing with you, I will make you a very rare offer. Leave now. And I will permit you to continue living until the Dark Gate opens and I am able to unleash my true power upon this planet."

"Well if that isn't generosity then I don't know what is," was Mousse's sardonic reply. Then his right arm blurred, and a spear shot out of his sleeve and into his waiting hand. "I'm afraid I'll have to decline, though. I think I'd prefer to kill you right here and now instead."

Ryouga cracked his neck and settled back into a fighting stance. "I agree. You're the one who'd better give up, if you want to make it out of this in one piece."

Ranma took a stance as well. "Saotome Ranma, of the Saotome-style Anything Goes school!" he called out. "What's your name, blanket-man? I'd at least like to know whose ass it is that I'm about to kick."

The hooded figure was silent for a moment. The words of Ranma's formal martial artist's challenge had caused it to pause for some reason. "I am..." it began, then hesitated for a moment longer before continuing. "I am the Death Phantom. I exist to eradicate all life, to return everything to the perfection of silence and nothingness. And no one shall stand in my way." With that, the crystal ball began to glow with a near-blinding light, and it unleashed an enormous blast of energy straight toward Ranma.

Ranma flung himself to one side, the beam ripping through several of the tall columns as it roared past, sending broken debris raining down from above. The pigtailed fighter hit the ground in a roll, even as Ryouga and Mousse both raced toward the enemy in twin blurs of speed. Mousse reached the target first, lunging in with his spear at where the figure's throat should have been—

—only to have the Death Phantom simply vanish. It reappeared floating off to Mousse's right, his crystal ball already glowing again, while Mousse was off-balance from his missed lunge. Another beam of destructive magic tore through the air, this time aimed at the hidden weapons master. But Mousse managed to spin his spear and jam the blade into the floor, using it to vault himself into a flip over the attack, though it snapped his weapon beneath him as it went by.

Even in midair, Mousse twisted to face his opponent and began hurling a rapid-fire barrage of throwing knives, while Ryouga ripped bandannas off his forehead by the handful and hurled them as well. None of them touched the cowled figure, who simply vanished once again. Teleportation... thought Ranma. I'd almost forgotten what a pain it can be to fight these kind of magic users...

With that, Ranma joined the attack as well. But rather than simply chasing after their opponent—which had been futile so far—the pigtailed fighter concentrated more on analyzing their enemy's teleportation. Its speed, its timing, its patterns. The positions and angles that the Death Phantom liked to counterattack from. Ranma's eyes picked apart every detail as the battle raged on and on.

Every so often, in a display of contemptuous nonchalance, the Death Phantom would call up the image of the white-haired man on its crystal ball and check on it, even in the middle of the fight. Ranma didn't know why the cowled figure was so intent on keeping watch over that man. What exactly was it worried about?

They continued to fight, the three martial artists and the lunatic mage chasing each other back and forth in an intricate dance of death, magic and steel and bladed cloth filling the air. And then Ranma saw it. The opening he had been waiting for. In less than a second, the Death Phantom would vanish to avoid a bomb that Mousse had just lobbed at him. And Ranma could anticipate exactly where he would reappear when he did.

The pigtailed fighter burst into motion even as the Death Phantom disappeared from sight. He was a blur of red and black, launching high into the air on a precise arc, rebounding off one of the columns, and twisting in mid-flight, aiming. A half-instant later, the cowled figure reappeared beneath him... with Ranma right in its blind spot and a Moko Takabisha already on the way down. "Hey Mousse, catch!" he shouted, as the ki blast exploded into the Death Phantom's back, knocking it earthward with a surprised roar of pain.

Mousse leapt up to meet it, a sword in each hand, using the force of his enemy's descent to help skewer both blades straight through its chest. Then he used his grip on the hilts to fling the cowled figure down on a new course. "Ryouga!"

The lost boy slammed into the Death Phantom just as it was about to hit the ground, pounding away at it with all his might. Punch after devastating punch crashed into the cowled figure, driving him backward until Ryouga had it pinned against one of the pillars. Still Ryouga continued to batter it, cracks growing in the column behind from the force transmitted through the Death Phantom's body. Within a few blows the column was about to shatter, and Ryouga drew back his fist for the punch that would drive the lunatic completely through it—

—but as he swung, the Death Phantom's hand shot up and caught the lost boy's arm at the wrist, stopping the punch cold a few inches in front of the shadows hiding its face. Ryouga's eyes went wide, and he strained with all his might to complete the attack, but the Death Phantom's grip did not waver.

"Strong..." the Death Phantom mused, and deep within the shadows of his cowl Ranma saw what seemed to be its eyes begin to glow. "Impressively strong. And yet... so very fragile in other ways. I believe that I can use you."

The lunatic's other arm shot out, latching around Ryouga's throat, and the Death Phantom began to levitate the two of them straight up. As they rose, the crystal ball rose along with them, and black smoke began to pour out of it and engulf the lost boy. "Tell me, Hibiki Ryouga..." the Death Phantom said. "Why are you fighting to save this world, when it has given you so much pain and sorrow? Surely you can see that painless nothingness is preferable to an existence like yours... an existence where you are always left alone in the end?"

Ryouga screamed, clenching his teeth and thrashing back and forth in an attempt to break free. The bastard is pulling some kind of mind-magic on him! Ranma realized. It was the only way the Death Phantom could have known any of that. "Don't listen to him, man!" the pigtailed fighter shouted up. "You're stronger than that, I know it! Don't let him twist you around! You aren't alone here!"

Hearing Ranma's words seemed to give the lost boy some strength to fight the spell, snapping him back to reality a bit. But the Death Phantom just kept on talking. "You lost Akane. You lost Akari. It was inevitable. What did you have to offer them in the first place? A shiftless vagabond, constantly absent for weeks on end. No steady work. No prospects. No future."

Ranma, meanwhile, had run to where he could get a clean shot at Ryouga's tormentor, and he hurled up a Moko Takabisha with a snarl. But the Death Phantom was too fast, and simply shifted its arm so that the lost boy was moved into the path of the oncoming attack. Ryouga let out a cry of pain as the ki blast slammed into him, and the Death Phantom chuckled.

"You see?" it said. "Even your 'friends' attack you. And why not? Haven't you done the same to them so many times? What have you ever accomplished in life, other than fighting? You are just a rabid beast, only fit for battle and destruction. So destroy. Destroy everything and everyone... and then I promise, your pain will cease."

His thoughts racing, Ranma wracked his brain for what to do. Ranged attacks were worse than useless; Ryouga would just be used as a shield, not to mention that he wasn't even sure how much effect they would have. Even now, Mousse's two swords were still impaled straight through the lunatic's shrouded torso, with no apparent effect. And trying to jump up and reach hand-to-hand range would be suicidal. As high up as the Death Phantom had risen, it would have plenty of opportunity to observe their trajectory and shoot them down if they committed to a leap.

But... maybe they could take advantage of that.

"Don't listen to his bullshit!" Ranma shouted up. "He's lying through his teeth, Ryouga! Fight it!" Then he turned to Mousse, speaking quickly in an undertone. "We gotta get up there. I need one of your chains."

Mousse gave a curt nod, understanding the plan immediately. He pulled a long chain from his sleeve, handing one end of it to Ranma, while he kept hold of the other. The Death Phantom, meanwhile, had not been silent. "Embrace the silence, Hibiki Ryouga," it commanded, the black smoke increasing its thickness. "It is the only thing left to a failure like you. You know this. You've known it every day of your life. Everyone you love will leave you. Everyone you trust will abandon you. In the end, you have nothing. In the end... you are nothing."

Time to shut you up! thought Ranma savagely, as he launched himself into the air, hurtling straight at the cowled figure as the chain trailed behind him. The Death Phantom shifted his free hand to point at Ranma... and then hesitated for a tiny fraction of an instant.

Because now it was a game of nerves and timing. If the Death Phantom fired too soon, then with the chain connecting him to Mousse, Ranma could dodge even in midair. If the Death Phantom fired too late, Ranma would be in striking range before it could complete the attack. And there was less than a heartbeat in which to make that calculation.

The Death Phantom fired. Ranma yanked with all his might on the chain, as did Mousse, wrenching the pigtailed fighter back down even faster than he had risen as an enormous beam of magical energy seared over his head. Ranma landed in a crouch next to Mousse, who immediately placed his foot in Ranma's linked hands. Now it was Mousse who leapt upward, his speed aided even more by Ranma hurling him.

Their enemy could not recover fast enough from the missed attack they had lured it into making. Before it could fire a second one Mousse was in range, ripping a sword from his sleeve as he shot upward and swinging it in a single, vicious slice that cut straight through the elbow of the arm holding Ryouga. The cowled figure let out an inhuman howl of pain and wobbled in its hovering, even as the hidden weapons master grabbed the lost boy with his free hand and then swung his sword back down at the Death Phantom's head.

Their enemy's remaining hand shot out, and managed to catch Mousse's sword arm at the wrist, stopping his attack before it hit... only to have Ranma swing up the chain Mousse had left below. It coiled around the Death Phantom's neck from behind, allowing Ranma to wrench their opponent earthward with all his might, slamming the cowled figure into the floor.

In less than a second the Death Phantom had recovered, its now-glowing eyes turning to focus on Ranma. But that was a grave mistake. Because in focusing on the one who had just struck it, it was not looking overhead, not looking at the martial artist who had suddenly become the most dangerous one of the three.

I bet you think you're so clever, messing around with people's minds like that, Ranma thought. Using your damn magic to drive them to that kind of complete, utter despair. Well guess what, Mr. Death Phantom? This time... you used it on the worst possible person.

"Shi Shi Hokodan!"

The Death Phantom looked up, just in time to see an enormous blast of concentrated depression an inch from its hooded face. The next instant, Ryouga's attack smashed its target into the ground with unbelievable force, the shockwave from its detonation blasting Ranma off his feet and sending him flying away in an uncontrolled tumble. It did far worse to the cowled figure, shattering its body into fragments and scattering them in every direction.

A moment later, Ryouga and Mousse landed in the gaping crater that had been blasted into the floor. The lost boy dropped to his knees, tear-tracks lining his face, his breathing ragged. "Hey..." Ranma said as he climbed back to his feet and walked over toward his rival. "Hey man, you did it! You took him down!"

Ryouga did not reply, his gaze unfocused, staring off at nothing. Ranma and Mousse exchanged glances. Then, after an uncertain pause, Ranma continued talking. "Look, we... probably should look around a little more, see if there's anyone else around here. He mentioned something about a 'Black Lady', right? Mousse, why don't you stay here with him 'till he's feeling better. I'll go see what else I can find."

The glasses-wearing fighter nodded, and Ranma turned to leave. He didn't have a clue what could be done about this whole crystal fortress in the middle of the city, or the 'Dark Gate' that the maniac had told them about, but hopefully the Sailor Senshi would know how to deal with that stuff. For now, he just wanted to make sure there weren't any other hidden surprises lying around for them. He headed away from the open space they had been fighting in, back toward the forest of pillars... but then paused, noticing something out of the corner of his eye.

It was the Death Phantom's floating crystal ball, now lying on the ground on the crater slopes. Somehow, it had avoided destruction from the super-charged Shi Shi Hokodan. Thing must be crazy tough, Ranma mused, as he walked over to it for a closer look.

There was something... weird about it, something that made Ranma feel uneasy. He knelt down and picked it up, running his fingers over its surface as he focused his senses on it. This doesn't make any sense, he thought. It's definitely some kind of crystal, but at the same time, I can still sense a presence from it! This thing... it's alive somehow! In fact... this is the exact same presence I was sensing from the Death Phan—

His thoughts were cut off as countless spears of writhing black energy impaled him from behind. Even absorbed in the sphere as he'd been, he managed to react in time to avoid a lethal hit... but not by much. The sharp tentacles of darkness proceeded to fling him into the air, where a beam of magic slammed into him, blasting him straight through a row of pillars with rib-snapping force. Finally he slammed into the ground, his body leaving a long, bloody smear on the floor as he rolled to a stop.

With an agonizing effort, he eventually managed to lift his head off the ground to see what was happening. Ryouga and Mousse were locked in desperate combat with the Death Phantom once again. Its cowl was in tatters now, allowing them to see what had been underneath.

It was little more than a skeleton. The arms, with their shifting, putrid colors, connected to other bony structures throughout its body, leading up to the bleached-white skull it had for a head. Its body was still in the process of pulling itself back together, bits and pieces of itself floating up to it, where they were knit back into place, repairing missing limbs and gaping holes. Even the tattered cowl was repairing itself, flowing and melding as it rose to wrap itself around its wearer once more.

"You pitiful fools," the Death Phantom mocked, flexing its fingers as they regenerated. "Did you really think that you actually had any chance at all in this fight? It is impossible for you to defeat me!"

That's why nothing we did worked! Ranma realized through the haze of pain. All the punches, the cuts... it was just pulling itself right back together again under that damn cowl!

The remaining two martial artists continued to fight on, but Ranma could see that it was futile. No matter how many times you hurt it, it'll just heal right back up, he thought. Then his eyes widened in a sudden realization. That crystal ball he has! That's the real key! It has to be! It had the Death Phantom's life force in it, and it was the only thing that didn't get destroyed by the Shi Shi Hokodan!

"...ball..." he managed to croak out, trying to crawl back closer to the battle. "...break... the ball..." But he was too far away, and no one heard him over the din of combat.

The battle raged on, but at that point it was only a matter of time. Mousse was the next one to make a mistake, and his body was flung through the air like a rag doll just as Ranma's had been. At that point only Ryouga was left standing.

And he did not last long alone.

Soon the lost boy was down on one knee, battered and bleeding, his breath heaving in and out. The Death Phantom hovered high above him, looking no different than he had at the beginning of the battle. "Now... where were we?" the creature asked. "Ah yes. I believe that you were about to become my newest servant."

The cowled figure descended toward the lost boy... but paused, as if suddenly recalling something. Then the Death Phantom looked quickly down into its crystal ball, bringing up the image of the throne room once again... which was something that it had not remembered to do even once since the three martial artists had started actually injuring it.

The throne-like chair was empty. The white-haired man was gone.

"No!" rasped the Death Phantom, and began to cycle rapidly through images on the crystal ball, his search becoming more and more frantic with each second that passed. Taking advantage of his distraction, the injured Ryouga tried to leap up at the cowled figure, only to be swatted back down again with a wave of its hand and a blast of magic.

Then, at last, it located the object of its search. The white-haired man was now standing on the exterior of the huge crystal fortress, looking down at another man, this one with blue hair. And the blue-haired man seemed to be shouting something up at him.

"No!" roared the Death Phantom again. "Damn you, Sapphire!" Then the cowled figure vanished from sight, teleporting instantly away from that chamber, even as Ranma's vision faded into black.

Ranma jerked awake, fighting against his sweat-drenched sheets in disorientation for a moment before he realized where—and when—he was. Just a dream, he thought. Even in the dark he could still recognize the outlines of the Tendo guest room, could hear the familiar sound of his father snoring on the futon next to him. With each passing moment the images became less immediate, fading back into the memory from which they had been born.

That's weird, Ranma thought, as he slowly pulled himself up into a more comfortable sitting position. It's been years since I really thought much about that fight...

Their situation had seemed pretty bad at the time, of course, but hindsight had dulled much of the pain and worry. Whatever the Death Phantom had gone to do, the injured Ryouga had made the most of the opportunity. He had grabbed both Ranma and Mousse, and dragged them out of there before the immortal skeleton had returned. Ranma didn't remember much of the ensuing flight—by that point he had pretty much passed out from pain and blood loss—but Ryouga had somehow managed to stumble his way down to the lower levels, and from there tunnel his way out again.

Ranma had woken up three days later in Doctor Tofu's clinic, with Akane, Ukyo and Shampoo watching over him worriedly, and with Ryogua and Mousse in nearby beds. He had soon learned the news that the crystal fortress was no longer a problem—specifically, the entire thing had been obliterated from the face of the earth by a power they could only assume had been Sailor Moon's.

Not that Ranma had been particularly surprised to hear that. The Death Phantom had been powerful, sure, but it hadn't come even remotely close to the scale of something like Metallia. Ranma was pretty sure that in straight-up mage-to-mage combat, Sailor Moon could wipe the floor with it, even using only a tiny fraction of the power he'd seen her pull out at the North Pole.

At least, as long as she'd gotten to him before he'd finished opening that "Dark Gate" he'd been going on about...

Either way, after that things had settled back into a relative lull again as far as the Sailor Senshi were concerned, leaving the martial artists to deal with their own problems. They still occasionally heard stories floating out of the Juuban area every now and then, but usually only when something particularly noteworthy or strange happened.

One time he'd heard a rumor that one of the Sailor Senshi's fights had completely trashed the building of some fancy private school, which brought a nostalgic smile to Ranma's face as he remembered their own school-destroying rumble. Then a while later, he heard that they'd started fighting monsters by summoning an actual flying unicorn, in order to... well, the stories hadn't been clear on just exactly what the flying unicorn did, but apparently it was important somehow.

Still, the Nerima fighters had little time to ponder such things, caught up in their own battles as they were. And the more they fought, the more their fame spread through the martial arts world. And the more that happened, the more people would come begging for their help, sometimes coming from remote parts of Japan, and occasionally even from China.

As the years went by they faced down vengeful ghosts, mad scientists, an army of ancient golems led by a three-story monstrosity, and everything in-between. And that wasn't even counting all the duels, challenges, murder attempts and unwanted suitors that seemed to rain down into their lives on a regular basis.

And then there had been the business in India... Ranma closed his eyes, trying to push the memory of those months out of his mind. It was over and done with now. The captive girls from around the world were safe, the ritual had been averted, and the self-proclaimed "god" who had orchestrated it all wouldn't be threatening anyone else with his insanity ever again.

When they had gotten back to Japan, they'd discovered that they'd missed another big Sailor Senshi battle while they'd been gone, some kind of throwdown at the Tokyo Dome, of all places, during the final concert of some pop group, and then later on at some TV studio somewhere, all of it coinciding with massive, planet-wide disturbances. Apparently it had been pretty intense, but by all accounts the magical girls had come out on top once again.

There hadn't been much out of Juuban since then—save for a close call or two when the Sailor Senshi dropped by to eat at Ucchan's again in their civilian alter egos as they sometimes did. Still, the distance between Nerima ward and Minato ward made even that a relatively infrequent occurrence.

Which was why it was so odd that he'd had this dream now. It wasn't as though he had any shortage of other memories from the more than two years since that fight that would make even better fodder for nightmares. Sure, getting turned into a human shishkabob by a sneak attack from a demented, near-unkillable skeleton hadn't exactly been his most glorious moment ever, but there were certainly far worse to choose from.

So why now? Why, all of a sudden, with nothing to bring the matter to mind, had he dreamed of the last time he had been involved in one of the Sailor Senshi's battles?

Ranma stared up at the ceiling, which offered him no answers. It was still in the dark of night, with hours left until the dawn, but he could tell already that he would get no further sleep. He was left alone with his thoughts, and an apprehension growing inside him to which he could not even put a name.

The shifting white mist hung in the air of the pocket dimension, obscuring anything beyond the immediate surroundings. No sound could be heard, only a somber, unbroken hush. Two things could be seen in all that expanse. The first was a large stone gate, its doors inscribed with symbols marking the phases of the moon. The second was the lone guardian standing vigil over it.

She watched the Gates, as was her charge, a tall figure in a sailor seifuku, with long green hair running down her back. The passage of aeons had done nothing to shake her resolve as she held her position there, charged to prevent any and all from passing through that forbidden gateway.

The march of hours, days, years, centuries, millennia... all of it meant little to her. But eventually, sometime in the midst of the endless stretch of silence and solitude... something changed.

The Gates of Time began to open.

Immediately Sailor Pluto leapt back, raising her Garnet Rod, her every instinct at full battle readiness. She was fully prepared to unleash destruction on whatever trespasser had dared try to use the ancient artifact to traverse the currents of time. No matter what deadly menace, no matter what unstoppable horror faced her, she was prepared to give her life, if necessary, to prevent it from altering the course of history. She gathered her power, as the Gates finished opening and—


—a small, pink-haired blur rushed out to envelop Sailor Pluto in a hug. The Senshi of Time released the attack she had been preparing and lowered her weapon to return the embrace. "Small Lady..." she sighed, not truly surprised. It had, after all, been her the last few times the Gates had opened in such a way, but she could not afford to relax her vigilance.

The lonely guardian looked down with affection at the young girl who was the only other person who could manipulate the Key of Space-Time. Sailor Chibi-moon, the Small Lady, otherwise known as Chibi-Usa. She was Sailor Pluto's beloved princess, the child and heir of Neo Queen Serenity and King Endymion. Or rather, she would be their child, almost two thousand years in the future.

It was for this child that Sailor Pluto had committed the gravest breach of her duties in her entire life. When the Black Moon Family had attacked Crystal Tokyo, when the Death Phantom's power had laid waste to the world of the future, the Senshi of Time had broken her vows and hidden the young princess in the only place she could. The past. The distant past of Chibi-Usa's own mother, back when she had been called Sailor Moon.

At the time, it had seemed the only way. She couldn't let them hurt Small Lady. She had tried to justify it to herself by the argument that the earth had already been almost completely destroyed, and any changes that might be introduced into the timestream could hardly be worse than what had happened. And indeed, not only had Sailor Moon been able to defend her daughter from the minions that the Black Moon family had sent in pursuit, but she had even destroyed the Death Phantom itself.

All in all, Sailor Pluto had been relieved beyond words at how events had turned out. Despite all the changes to the past, the future had ended up brighter than ever. She had been fully prepared to return to her original purpose, safeguarding that new future from any and all attempts to alter it.

Except that Neo Queen Serenity kept sending Small Lady back!

There had been little that Sailor Pluto could do. She herself had granted Sailor Chibi-moon the right to use the Key of Space-Time, and such things could not be revoked. And of course, there was no way she could bring herself to raise her hand against the young princess. Sailor Pluto had argued with the Neo Queen for hours on end—nearly beside herself—trying to convince her of the horrible danger in further tampering with the course of time, but was completely unable to change the other woman's mind.

And so Chibi-Usa had returned to the past once again, this time on the flimsiest of excuses. To "get some extra training" and to "make some new friends"... throwing a random element right into three of the most dangerous struggles for the fate of the planet.

Admittedly, the resulting changes had all ended up being for the better in each instance. Sailor Saturn surviving the clash with the Death Busters, the Amazon Quartet turning their backs on Queen Nehelina, and the eventual redemption of Queen Nehelina herself. But how had the Queen known? Of all the uncountable possibilities that could have resulted, how had she been so certain that sending her daughter back would do what it had done? It was at times like these that Sailor Pluto had to wonder if her monarch really did have access to some Higher source of insight that even the guardian of the Time Gates was not privy to.

Either that, or the Queen simply had more dumb luck than any ten people Sailor Pluto had ever met. It was slightly terrifying to her that she couldn't decide which explanation was the more likely one.

And now she was at it again. Sailor Pluto looked down at the young girl—older now than the last time she had come through, but still a child—and rested a hand affectionately on her head. "And what brings you to your mother's past this time, Small Lady?" she asked. "More searching for friends, perhaps?"

The pink-haired girl shook her head, causing her pink pigtails to swing back and forth around her head. "Nope!" she said. "It's for a party! My fourteenth birthday is in a month, and Mother thought would be good to have the celebration back here!"

A party. Did that woman's insouciance know no bounds? Sailor Pluto studied the Time Gates again, taking note of the time it was opened to on the other end, and saw the cleverness in how it had been arranged. On both ends of the time passage it was one month from June 30th—which was either Chibi-Usa's fourteenth birthday or her negative one thousand and eighty-fifth, depending on which side you looked at it from. "I see..." was Sailor Pluto's even reply. "And did your mother mention, by any chance, why she sent you back a full month before the event is to take place?"

The young princess's face took on a puzzled look. "Not really," she admitted. "To... get everything ready, I guess? She did say I should invite a lot of people."

Not that Sailor Pluto believed for a moment that that was all there was to it. There was some other purpose at work here. The truly frightening thing was that she had no idea what it could be. With Sailor Galaxia's threat gone, there just weren't supposed to be any more enemies or battles worth interfering in. In fact, it would not be long now before the first, ominous signs would begin to show of what would eventually become the Great Freeze, the mysterious ecological catastrophe that would send the planet into frozen hibernation for a thousand years.

By all that was holy. Did the Queen intend to meddle even in that? And if so, how did she expect one little girl to affect a disaster of which they had never even been able to determine the ultimate cause?

Apprehension churned in her stomach, but Sailor Pluto let none of it show on her face. At this point there was nothing for it but to see what happened... and pray that her liege knew what she was doing. "Well then," she told Small Lady. "We should bring you to your mother and let her know of this, so that the preparations can begin. I am sure that it will be... most memorable."

Chibi-Usa nodded vigorously, not picking up on the older woman's trepidation. Sailor Pluto took the young princess's hand, and teleported the two of them out of the pocket dimension and to a place in the normal world not far from the Tsukino family home.

Once they had rematerialized, Sailor Pluto turned toward Small Lady once again. "We should find somewhere private and undo our transformations," she suggested. "Then we can find your mother and tell her—"

But she was cut off, as the sound of a loud explosion reverberated through the air. Both of them whirled, to see a thick plume of smoke rising up a short distance away. "What was that?" asked Sailor Chibi-moon, startled.

"I am not sure..." was Sailor Pluto's measured reply. But there was one thing of which she was sure. One way or another... this was the beginning of another round of trouble.

"Sparkling Wide Pressure!"

The sphere of pale blue energy shot down the street toward the grey, hulking, eight-legged creature at the other end. But just before the attack hit, the thing leaped with a velocity that seemed impossible for something of its size and bulk. It launched itself through the air to latch onto the wall of a nearby building, while Sailor Jupiter's attack instead struck a parked car, blasting the empty vehicle apart in an explosion of gasoline and electrical discharge.

Screams from fleeing bystanders filled the air as the monster immediately jumped back off the building wall, flipping over a stream of blazing fire, and landing with a pavement-cracking impact directly in front of Sailor Jupiter, looking balefully down at her with its single, blood-red eye. It swung one of its telephone-pole-sized legs around at her, but the green-skirted Sailor Senshi leaped back just in time. All the swipe succeeded in doing was to clip some strands of her shoulder-length brown hair as the limb ripped within a few inches of her face.

Even as she landed she was readying another Sparkling Wide Pressure, her teeth clenched. Around her, her teammates were locked in their own battles, fighting against other strange grey monsters. They weren't all the same kind as this tank-sized spider that she and Sailor Mars were fighting; the two slashing away at Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Kamen were human-shaped, except that they had four arms apiece, each one gripping a sword. The one fighting Sailor Mercury and Sailor Venus was a beaked, feathered monster that kept dive-bombing them from above, darting to and fro through the air with blinding speed.

The entire situation was a nightmare. The monsters had attacked without warning, targeting a busy thoroughfare. Fortunately the Sailor Senshi had been close by, but they were struggling to hold their own. The things were fast, and there were still too many civilians nearby—hiding or cowering or injured—for them to risk using their most wide-scale destructive attacks.

Tuxedo Kamen's cane was blurring as he dueled one of the four-armed monsters, while the creature's partner chased after Sailor Moon, who dodged and rolled and backpedaled frantically away from the hungry blades. Sailor Jupiter knew that if the blonde girl could only get enough space to cast her Silver Moon Crystal Power Kiss it could turn the entire battle around. The scale of that attack was huge, and its magic wouldn't harm any of the surrounding humans, so it could be used with impunity. But those four slashing swords were barely giving her time to breathe, let alone get off a spell like that.

Sailor Venus and Sailor Mercury were unleashing their own powers skyward, water and golden light filling the air as they attempted to shoot down their adversary. But the feathered monster swerved and wheeled around their every attempt, banking back and forth with seemingly-impossible control. The thing swooped down at Sailor Mercury again, angling just around the raging stream of her Mercury Aqua Rhapsody, and slammed its shoulder into her.

The Senshi of Water was sent staggering, leaving her wide open to a slash from the monster's claws. But just before the slash hit her, the golden heart-shaped links of the Venus Love-Me Chain wrapped around the creature's torso and yanked it away headlong, flinging it through a nearby storefront window in a shower of shattering glass.

Sailor Jupiter hurled her Sparkling Wide Pressure at the huge spider-thing, even as the spider's crimson eye began to glow. As the blast of compressed electrical power shot up at it, its eye released a blast of its own, dark red energy that struck the Senshi's attack head-on. The resulting explosion carved a small crater into the street below and sent the young woman skidding backward, but she managed to keep her footing. The monster's eye glowed once more—

—only to stagger to its knees as an arrow of flame slammed into it from the side, causing its shot to go wild and miss the Senshi that had been its target. Sailor Jupiter took full advantage of the monster's disorientation, bursting into an all-out run straight toward it. One more Sparkling Wide Pressure formed in her palm as she ran. Sailor Mars' attack didn't seem to have seriously damaged it; the thing's hide was infuriatingly tough.

But if that was the case...

The green-skirted Senshi leapt through the air right at the hulking figure, even as it righted itself, its eye beginning to glow again in an attempt to intercept her. Not fast enough! Sailor Jupiter thought as she swung her hand down from above, driving the Sparkling Wide Pressure directly into the thing's eye with all her might.

The monster writhed and spasmed, electricity crackling all through its body as the Senshi of Lightning released her power into it. Even then, however, it made no noise at all. It convulsed in absolute silence, smoke rising from it as Sailor Jupiter pushed her attack deeper and deeper through the eye into the thing's body, pouring more and more of her power into it as she went.

Finally, when she had buried her arm almost to her elbow, she allowed her attack to explode deep within the creature. The thing gave one last thrashing convulsion and then crumpled to the ground, its body slowly melting into a pool of murky ooze.

Breathing hard, Sailor Jupiter looked over to check on the other battles. The tide was beginning to turn. Sailor Mercury had managed to freeze the flying monster's legs to the ground in a sheathe of ice and was holding it trapped there, allowing Sailor Venus to fire a point-blank Crescent Beam Shower into the creature, killing it. Tuxedo Kamen and Sailor Moon were both holding their own already, and now that Sailor Jupiter and Sailor Mars were free to help they could start taking down the sword-wielders.

Then the situation changed.

The sword-monsters must have realized that things were going badly for them, and they decided to switch tactics. In the space of an instant, the one attacking Sailor Moon abandoned its assault on her, and joined its fellow by rushing at Tuxedo Kamen from behind. Sailor Jupiter's eyes went wide, but she didn't have an attack prepared and couldn't ready one in time. She could only watch as the swords cut through the air toward the masked man's unprotected back.

"Pink Sugar Heart Attack!"

A split-second before the blades struck home, the monster was blindsided by a rapid-fire stream of large pink hearts, each one slamming into it with enough concussive force to blast it back through the air. It tumbled end over end along the street before regaining its footing, even as all eyes turned toward the source of the unexpected intervention. "Sailor Chibi-moon!" called out Sailor Moon.

It was, indeed, her. The pink-haired girl stood on a nearby rooftop, with the austere figure of Sailor Pluto standing next to her. Startling to Sailor Jupiter was that the girl was now quite a bit older than when she had last visited this time period, though she supposed that it explained the increased power behind what had formerly been a somewhat useless attack.

"For love and justice!" the young Senshi exclaimed, assuming a pose. "The pretty soldier in a sailor suit, Sailor Chibi-moon! In the name of the future moon, I'll punish you!"

But in that split-second of distraction caused by the unexpected reappearance of the girl from the future, the surviving two monsters made their move. One threw itself at Sailor Moon, its four blades slashing in from every direction. The startled girl tried to leap away, but didn't quite make it, and two of the blades ripped bloody gashes in the forearm she had thrown up as an instinctual defense. She tumbled away, clutching at her arm... which left an opening for the monsters to escape.

They took it. Now outnumbered eight to two, the two survivors evidently decided that discretion had become the better part of valor. They leapt for the rooftops, bounding from one to the next as fast as they could. Sailor Pluto chased after them, but they were faster than she was, and were able to avoid the one Dead Scream that she managed to launch at their fleeing forms.

"Sailor Moon!" All this Sailor Jupiter was only aware of peripherally. Her primary focus was on her injured friend, who she immediately ran toward, along with the rest of the Senshi. Tuxedo Kamen, of course, reached her first, and was kneeling over her when the others arrived moments later, including Sailor Chibi-moon, who had jumped down from the rooftop and scrambled over to where her mother lay. "Sailor Moon, are you all right?"

The blonde girl looked up at them with a small wince, but then offered a reassuring smile. "I'm... okay..." she said, while still clutching her wounded arm protectively. "I'm sorry about that, everyone. I guess I wasn't paying enough attention."

"We were all distracted," was Tuxedo Kamen's immediate reply, his voice soothing. "And it could have been much worse. Let me see this." His motions gentle, he moved Sailor Moon's hand away from the bleeding cuts and placed his own hand over them. The injured area glowed for a moment with a golden light, and when he moved his hand away the injury was gone. The only sign left that it had ever existed at all were the bloodstains running down the length of Sailor Moon's arm.

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief at that, allowing them to focus on the larger problems now that the immediate ones had been dealt with. "What were those things?" asked Sailor Venus. "Some new enemy? I didn't recognize them at all."

"Their attack didn't match any of the patterns of our previous opponents," put in Sailor Mercury, her voice thoughtful. "They struck in a group, for one thing. And they didn't seem to be trying to harvest life energy, or take heart crystals or star seeds or... anything. They weren't even attacking people directly, at least not that I saw. They were just smashing things. Causing a commotion."

"Like they just wanted to get our attention," said Sailor Jupiter, her expression grim. "Like they were testing us."

No one had anything to say to that. At length, Sailor Mars spoke up. "Well if this was a test, then we sent them packing. And if they want to try again... we'll just have to be ready to deal with that as well."

But as week after week went by, they saw no further sign of their strange, grey-skinned opponents. The Sailor Senshi remained vigilant, but there were no attacks, no hints, no clues, nothing to go on. At length, they began to wonder if the creatures had been related to any larger threat at all. Perhaps they had just been isolated monsters—somehow finding their way into the city and causing a commotion before being driven back out to remote parts again. It wouldn't be the first time such a thing had happened.

At the same time, they were preparing for the unexpected event of Chibi-Usa's birthday party—coinciding with the much more expected event of Usagi's own birthday party, since both mother and daughter shared the same birthdate of June 30th. The preparations were a whirl of confusion and chaos as more friends, family and other Sailor Senshi were pulled in. Soon the event had begun to snowball beyond any of their expectations, taking on a life of its own.

True to Neo Queen Serenity's prediction, the number of attendees kept growing and growing and growing, as the two girls ended up inviting more and more people that they hadn't seen in a while. It was times like these where it became truly apparent just how many lives Usagi had touched over the years—not only in her battles as a Sailor Senshi, but also as the friendly, lovable klutz that couldn't bear to leave someone alone when they were in trouble or pain or friendless. And even the large guest list they ended up with was only a fraction of them.

Overall, the atmosphere of the Tsukino household and those associated with it was a joyous—if slightly frazzled—excitement. The only one who found it hard to partake of the feeling was Sailor Pluto. Even on the visits she made in her civilian guise of Meiou Setsuna, she found it impossible to shake the foreboding that had taken hold of her.

She didn't let it show to the others, choosing keeping her fears hidden behind the enigmatic expression she wore. But the fears were there nonetheless. What twist of fate did Small Lady's unexpected return to this time portend? And what would the consequences be for all of them?

Of course, the residents of Nerima were not idle during those weeks.

His hands tucked deep within the voluminous sleeves of his robe, Mousse walked down the street toward the Kuno home. He knew the way quite well by now, but he still kept himself open to his surroundings. He could sense the ki of the people in the houses he went by, and he could even sense the ever-so-subtle way that their ki interacted with any nearby walls or floors. When combined with his reading of the echoes and vibrations of ambient noise around him, it allowed him to form a quite decent mental image of what those buildings would have looked like, had he been able to see them.

It was a terribly intricate and complex process. When he had first begun his training it had taken him hours of meditation to get a complete picture of even a single room. Now, after nearly two years of constant use, the delicate interplay of high-level techniques came as naturally to him as breathing. He no longer had to think about combining the different senses; he simply perceived. A one-block radius was his usual, comfortable range these days, but if he really focused he could double that, and extend it even further if he was willing to trade fine detail for distance.

Soon the hidden weapons master approached his destination. He detected four presences in the house up ahead. By the proportions of their bodies two were female, one was male, and one was a giant sumo pig. The subtle nuances of the auras of Kuno and Kodachi were familiar enough that he could identify them by that alone, which meant that the remaining female was almost certainly Akari. He could also sense Kodachi's pet crocodile, Mr. Turtle, in the pond out back, but its breathing rhythm told him that it was currently asleep.

He walked up to the door and knocked three times, the minute vibrations of each knock rippling through his perception of the house's interior, shifting its contours in subtle ways. Inside, Kuno and Akari looked up at the sound, but Kodachi did not, nor did she show any other reaction. Mousse's mouth bent into a small grimace. She had not noticed the knocking, which was generally not a good sign.

Kuno's presence rose to a standing position, his feet impacting against the floor as he walked through the hallway over to the door and swung it open. The kendoist's heartbeat picked up minutely as he saw who it was, indicating surprised pleasure. "Ah, my Chinese compatriot!" he exclaimed in his usual bombastic tone. "To what do I owe the honor of your visit?"

"I was in the area on a delivery and decided to drop by," answered Mousse. "Is your sister in, by any chance?" Gauging Kuno's position, Mousse oriented his head to try and "look him in the eye" as they spoke. It was something he usually tried to do—despite how irrelevant it was to him personally—in an attempt to make his conversations feel less awkward for the other person.

"I see." Kuno's voice took on a slightly puzzled tone, no doubt wondering why Mousse was, yet again, checking up on his sister. "Yes, she is home at the moment. Though I do not know if she desires visitors."

"I'll take the chance." He had already known Kodachi was present before asking the question, of course, but he tried to avoid reminding people of how little privacy their walls gave them when he was in the vicinity.

Kuno nodded. Then, turning, he led Mousse back down the hallway and into the room he had just come from. The presence that he'd guessed to be Akari rose to her feet as they entered, and the sound of her voice confirmed it. "Oh, hello Mousse!"

The hidden weapons master replied with a small nod of his head. "Miss Akari." He'd never really happened to spend all that much time around her, and he knew her mainly from Ryouga's—and later Kuno's—descriptions, along with a handful of passing encounters here and there. Nevertheless, he did notice a small addition around one of her fingers that hadn't been there the last time they'd met, sensing it through the miniscule-yet-detectable fluctuations it created in the flow of her aura. "It seems that congratulations are in order?" he continued, gesturing toward it.

The nineteen-year-old girl's heartbeat began to flutter faster at his observation, and her voice took on an equal mixture of pleased and embarassed. "I... yes, we... we're not going to actually have the wedding until Tatewaki finishes his university studies... so it'll still be quite a while yet... but he said that he wanted to express his intentions right away."

Mousse moved beyond passive observation for a moment, sending out a tiny pulse of his own ki aura rippling across his surroundings, which he used to bring his awareness into even sharper focus. The engagement ring around Akari's finger was ostentatiously large, as one might expect from someone with Kuno's temperament and monetary resources. Even so, Akari seemed happy with it if Mousse was any judge of voices.

And judging emotions by the voice was a skill in which Mousse had no small amount of practice.

"Well, my best wishes, whenever it comes to pass," the hidden weapons master offered politely. Then he turned toward the hallway that led to Kodachi's room. "If I may?"

"Of course!" At the girl's assent, the hidden weapons master stepped around her and continued on toward his destination.

Soon he was standing in front of the last door. On the other side of it, Kodachi was sitting curled up on her bed. Deciding there was no point in beating around the bush, Mousse knocked on the door. Inside, the girl's breathing and heartbeat shifted slightly—enough to tell Mousse that she had noticed him that time. But there was no other response.

After waiting for several seconds, Mousse opened the door and stepped inside, closing it behind him. Focusing, he noticed that the room's light switch was in the "off" position, and the heavy blinds had been drawn as well, which meant that the room was probably quite dark.

At last, Kodachi spoke. "Why are you here?" she demanded in a rough, raw voice, as she raised her arm and swiped it angrily across her eyes.

"I just wanted to see how you were doing," Mousse answered, his voice calm.

"Hah!" Kodachi laughed, a single, bitter laugh. "Wanted to see how well your lies had taken root, more likely. Do you have more ridiculous stories today? More tales of a year that you claim I do not remember?"

The gymnast was the only member of their Dark Kingdom invasion force that had not fully regained her memories of the year that Sailor Moon's power had rewound. At first they had tried to restore her like everyone else, but had backed off when they saw how violent her reaction had been once those memories did start to resurface. Eventually, most of them had decided it would be kinder to let her remain ignorant of the past that she clearly did not want to remember.

Mousse had thought so too... at first. But lately he had come to believe otherwise. This state she was in—half-remembering, but not willing to accept it—was putting an ever-increasing strain on the psyche of a girl whose grip on reality had never been the most stable to begin with.

"I won't say anything if you're not ready to hear it," The hidden weapons master said. He was trying his best to be gentle and comforting in how he spoke, but he felt completely unsuited for this sort of role. "But you can't keep running from this forever. It's tearing you apart."

At his words the young gymnast rose to face him, standing up from the bed, her body radiating agitated, unstable ki like a bonfire. "What would you know?" she hissed. "What would you know of how I feel? And why do you even care?"

Mousse didn't reply immediately. The last question was one he'd asked himself more than once. Kodachi wasn't his problem, after all. Even in the years he'd lived in Nerima they hadn't crossed paths much, and he had only started taking a close interest in her recently. Maybe it was a sense of obligation to someone who had fought alongside him on several occasions: the Dark Kingdom, the Kyushu incident, India. Maybe it was because he could "see" her more clearly than the others could, reading her emotional state. Maybe it was because he alone had noticed the ever-growing strain on her psyche, noticed that it was something deeper than just her usual manic behavior.

Or maybe... maybe it was because he had come to see a little bit of himself in the poor, lunatic girl. Hopelessly in love with someone who would never love them back, not in the way she wanted. Just another casualty of the romantic battlefield that was Nerima.

"It's not important," Mousse replied. "I just think that this is something you need to face. If you think I'm lying to you, then talk to someone else. If you asked him, even Ranma will—"

As soon as the words left his mouth, the hidden weapons master realized that bringing up Ranma had been a mistake. With a savage burst of motion, Kodachi rolled off the bed to her feet, and Mousse heard her fling something through the air at him—one of her roses. Instinctively he focused on the oncoming projectile, analyzing the object's internal structure in an instant, noting the chemical fuse that would shortly trigger the explosive embedded in the flower.

Then his arm blurred. He whipped a European-style saber out of his sleeve, cut the rose in two at the crucial point, and re-sheathed it in his sleeve again, all in the blink of an eye. The bisected halves of the flower fell to the ground, now in no danger of exploding.

With a strangled cry, Kodachi drew her ribbon, and Mousse heard the bladed cloth slice through the air toward his face. His hand shot up and caught the weapon, stopping it cold just before it struck. The gymnast tried to pull it free, but Mousse held his grip, the two of them straining against each other. "Listen to me, Kodachi," he told her quietly, even as he felt a thin trickle of blood run down his palm from the cut her attack had given him. "This isn't some kind of trick. I just want to help you. That's all this is."

Kodachi's jaw was clenched hard, and Mousse could hear her teeth grinding together. "Lies," she eventually snarled. "All lies. You're trying to make me doubt myself, conspiring to keep my darling Ranma from me, filling my head with these... these thoughts... these memories! Even... even Ranma himself is with you! It isn't fair! You think I can't see it? You think I don't know? Just... leave me! Leave me!"

"Kodachi..." Mousse began.


Mousse opened his mouth, then realized that anything he said at this point would only make things worse. Finally he nodded, then backed toward the door and exited the room, shutting the door behind him. There was silence for several seconds, and then from inside the bedroom he heard Kodachi let out a scream of rage and pain, then the sound of her ribbon slashing back and forth, ripping the furniture in her room to pieces and flinging it in every direction.

It can't go on like this, the blind master thought, as he listened to the gymnast's destructive rampage. Something needs to change.

I just don't have the slightest idea what to do about it.

Hibiki Ryouga gazed long and hard into the campfire he had built in front of his tent, as its orange glow flickered in the darkness of the large construction site. The fire caused the surrounding beams and girders to cast interlocking shadows, as its light played against the tall skeleton of the building that was being constructed here. As the young man sat, brooding, he listened with half an ear to the conversations of the half-dozen other construction workers who had gathered around that same fire.

He appreciated them hanging around like this; he knew there were any number of other places they could be. Unlike him, they could leave the construction site without any fear of wandering off across the country instead of showing up for work the next day. It was kind of them to stay after work hours and attempt to provide their youngest member with some degree of companionship.

And such companionship, even from relative strangers, was something both rare and dear to someone who spent the majority of his life alone. Especially in light of recent events, as his thoughts kept circling back to his last conversation with Akane.

"Listen... Ryouga. I... don't know how to say this, exactly, but I thought you should know. Kuno... proposed to Akari last week. They're engaged now."

A small, sad smile crossed Ryouga's face. So. He finally asked her... the lost boy thought. He'd known it would happen sooner or later, of course. It had taken him a long time, but somewhere in the past two years he had been forced to realize that any chance he'd had with Akari was now long gone, and he honestly wished her the best in the new life she was heading toward.

But even so... hearing the news did bring back memories. Memories of their brief time together. Memories that were all the crueler for being some of the brightest moments in his nineteen years of life.

Ryouga didn't exactly know how long he spent lost in reminiscence like that, but eventually he noticed that one of the other construction workers was talking to him specifically. He blinked and glanced up at the speaker. "I'm sorry. What did you say?"

The man was in his late fifties at least, with steel-gray hair and a hard, craggy face. All the men who had lingered around his campsite were old hands; the younger, more inexperienced workers had left immediately after their shift had ended. "I said that you've been doing good work so far, kid," he repeated. "Can't remember the last time I saw a new hand as strong as you are. Guess you've had training?"

Ryouga nodded once. "Some, yes."

"Know any construction techniques? I've seen you heft a girder around with the best of them, but have you learned anything from an actual construction style?"

A question about martial arts was a welcome distraction from the melancholy of memory. "I did go through the Bakusai Tenketsu training," Ryouga said. "And I also learned the Shi Shi Hokodan from a construction worker I met in a cave somewhere in the mountains."

The older man's eyebrows went up a little. "Not bad. Most kids your age don't even get close to anything on that level."

Ryouga shrugged. "I mostly use them for combat, but they're definitely helpful for jobs like this too." The lost boy didn't exactly have much in the way of marketable skills, other than physical labor and beating things up. And while his nomadic way of life was far less expensive than city living, he still needed to bring in some money every now and then. He didn't usually make much at any given job before getting lost again, but every little bit helped.

The conversation, meanwhile, had caught the attention of the others now. "You ever come up with any techniques of your own?" one of them asked, professional interest in his eyes.

"A few," answered the lost boy. "Most of them are just different versions of the ones I already knew. There's some interesting tricks you can do with the Bakusai Tenketsu if you play around with it enough. And the toughening it gives your body is even more important. I modified that part a couple times too—usually when I had to train for a really important fight."

"What's to modify?" asked another worker, both his tone and expression skeptical. "You pound yourself with rocks, and you keep doing it until you're tough enough that it doesn't give you trouble anymore. What more is there to it than that?"

"When you stop using rocks." Ryouga's reply was flat and to the point. "The training is the same. The last change I made was to use a 'boulder' that was twice as big as the last one... and made of solid steel."

One of the workers let out a low whistle, and the faces looking at him took on a variety of expressions, different shades of either shocked, impressed, or disbelieving. "Why on earth would you go that far?" asked another one of the workers. "I never even had the guts to go through the ordinary Bakusai Tenketsu—always thought it was overkill. Why would you ever need training like that?"

Ryouga looked away, as his thoughts went back to the final, terrible battle that he and Ranma had fought in India, high atop their enemy's mountain fortress. "Because we needed to stop a monster," he told them. "And believe me, even that training wasn't enough. It took... something more to actually kill him."

The older men glanced at each other. "Well, it's damned impressive, whatever the reason," said the worker who had first spoken to Ryouga. "It's hard to believe anything human could survive something like that."

The lost boy shrugged, turning back to gaze into the depths of the fire once more. "It's nothing special, really," he said. "It's not like it takes any particular talent. You just have to take enough hits. Eventually you don't even feel the pain anymore."







The enthusiastic battle cries poured from a dozen throats to fill the Tendo dojo, as a dozen fists shot out in tolerable approximations of correct punches. The students, each one clad in a white karate gi, stood in three rows of four, their feet planted wide apart in a horse stance as they drilled one of the most basic fighting techniques. With each count they alternated between hands, punching away at the air.

Akane, clad in her own gi, walked up and down the rows, calling out the numbers as she went, while at the same time making small corrections here and there. Sometimes she would adjust the orientation of a fist, sometimes she would remind a slacking student to keep their knees bent. It was the simplest of lessons, which Akane herself had been taught almost from the time she could walk.

The students drilling it today were each in their early to late teens already, and none of them had any intention of taking it much beyond what Akane would consider the basics. But as far as the basics went, they were proving eager enough learners.

Her eyes drifted up toward the front of the class, where her friend Yuka was. Sweat was pouring down the girl's brow, but she kept up with the count. Her attacks had an admirable snap to them, considering how little time she had been training. It was Yuka who had been the start of all this, really. Akane had urged the other girl to learn at least some basic self-defense after a bad incident with a boyfriend back during their senior year. Yuka had been resistant at first, but eventually she had agreed to a few private lessons at the Tendo dojo.

To Yuka's surprise, she had enjoyed it immensely. To Akane's surprise, once word started to get out about their lessons, Yuka was not the only one who wanted them. Even though the excesses of the "dating challenges" on her way to school had long since died down, she still had many admirers among her classmates, both romantic and non-romantic. And after talking it over with her father, he had given her his blessing to open the Tendo dojo to outside students.

"All right!" the youngest Tendo called out, once she was satisfied with their performance in the punching drill. "Next we'll work on your kicks, starting with the front kick. Ready?"

"Yes, sensei!" responded a chorus of voices. The class proceeded to do exactly that, followed by several more kicking drills, and then moving into practicing some basic kata. By the time the class reached its end, the students were all drenched in sweat, all panting for breath, and Akane judged that this had been a good session.

She called them back to attention, then had them kneel for a period of meditation. After that was complete they bowed to each other, and with that she dismissed the class. A few of the newer students fairly collapsed with relief, though Akane noted with approval that the endurance of the more experienced ones was definitely improving.

Even after the dismissal many of the students lingered around for a while, chatting with her, asking her various questions. She walked with them to the main gate of the Tendo compound, talking freely all the while. Eventually, though, the last of them departed, leaving her alone in the yard.

She took a deep breath, then let it out, savoring the cool evening breeze as it whispered past her. It was getting late; the class had run longer than expected, and around her everything was already darkening toward night. I shouldn't have lost track of time like that... she told herself reprovingly. And yet... she so enjoyed working with the students, helping them learn. Akane knew that she was not the most powerful fighter around, that when it came to the life-or-death battles her contributions were relatively small. But here, in these classes, it truly felt like she was doing something meaningful. And that was precious to her in a way she could not even put into words.

Well, that's it for tonight, she thought, as she walked back toward her house. I wonder if dad is back from—

A frantic flash of her danger sense was her only warning. She spun, wrenching her head away even as she threw up her arms in a block that deflected a vicious kick aimed at where her skull had been. The force of the kick sent her stumbling backward, but she still managed to parry the three follow-up punches and leap away to a safe distance. There she took a stance, raising her fists in a guard as she regarded her attacker.

Shampoo stood there, dressed in a gold-and-black cheongsam that hugged her curvaceous form tight. Her expression was intent as she watched the other girl, but there was also a spark of pleased approval deep in her eyes, a hidden almost-smile that only those who knew her well would be able to detect. "Tsk. Is too bad. Look like Akane not quite so careless today as usual."

Akane smirked. The sneak attacks were a new dimension to their duels, one that had started without warning almost a month ago. The young Tendo had spent the first week or so getting smashed into the ground over and over again without even detecting Shampoo, and it was even longer before she had been able to mount a fully successful defense.

Of course, as soon as she had successfully defended, Shampoo had simply made the next sneak attack even harder to detect, until Akane had been able to counter that as well. It would continue to escalate, Akane knew, until the Chinese girl decided there was another area that needed work even more. Before sneak attacks it had been defense against swords, and before that it had been dodging thrown projectiles.

"You're here early, for a weekday," commented Akane, as she began to circle her rival. The young proprietress of the Nekohanten generally liked to oversee her restaurant's operation personally during its business hours, unless something significantly more important trumped that. Usually that meant chasing after Akane's fiancée, of course.

The Chinese girl took a stance as well, holding up a single hand in front of herself, palm inward. Her other hand she held behind her, in a fist at the small of her back. "Is slow night. Have Mousse watching things for last few hours, and new hires making deliveries. Can handle that much without Shampoo, Shampoo think."

"More time for this, then!" With that, Akane launched herself at the other girl, attacking with a quick combination of punches that Shampoo blocked effortlessly with her outstretched hand. The Joketsuzoku girl endured the attacks, biding her time... then struck back with a single, lightning-fast swipe that Akane had to jerk her head back to evade, interrupting her momentum.

Immediately Shampoo went on the offensive, launching an unrelenting chain of kicks that chased her opponent backward, switching legs back and forth, attacking from every angle. "How was today class with city-children playing at martial art?" inquired the Chinese girl as she battered against Akane's frantic guard.

Akane tried to duck under one of the kicks and attack with a leg sweep, but Shampoo leapt over it into a twisting, acrobatic flip. Her trajectory carried her directly above Akane, and while passing overhead she tried to punch straight down from above, but the Tendo girl managed to get her arms up in time to block it.

"It's not 'playing' for them," Akane responded, as she went on the attack once more. She darted in and out of range, trying to create an opening with quick punch flurries while not committing herself in a way Shampoo could exploit. "And even if they aren't as good as any of us, it doesn't mean they can't get a benefit from it."

"If Akane say so." Shampoo made a sudden, swift kick at Akane's knee, which the young Tendo avoided by yanking that leg up. Then she turned the motion into a kick at Shampoo's head, which was in turn blocked. "Shampoo still think Akane do better to use time for own training. Akane need enough work as is."

"Maybe. But I think I need these classes even more." As she spoke, Akane began to turn up the pressure, the speed of her punches increasing and increasing, until they were barely-visible blurs. Shampoo was still deflecting them all, but now she was forced to use both hands to do it. They danced back and forth, each of them striking, spinning and evading, the ferocity of their clash growing with each passing moment.

Then Akane over-extended one of her punches, and Shampoo capitalized on the mistake, trapping the other girl's hand and twisting it into a wristlock. Akane dove forward, trying to roll out of it, but that only gave Shampoo the opportunity to slip in close and maneuver the wristlock into an even tighter armlock.

Akane's free hand shot down low, managing to hook Shampoo by the ankle. She yanked hard, while at the same time slamming her shoulder sideways into her opponent. The action managed to off-balance Shampoo enough that Akane was able knock her to the ground, landing on top of her. The Tendo girl's arms wrapped tighter around Shampoo's leg, trying for an ankle lock. But before she could secure it she felt Shampoo's fingers sink into her hair, grabbing hold and pulling her up into the air.

The young Tendo tried to wrench herself free, but her opponent was much stronger than her. Despite her struggles, Shampoo used her grip to swing Akane around and slam her face-first into the ground beside her. Akane's vision exploded with white, and before she could regain her senses Shampoo had rolled over on top of her, arm snaking around her neck in a headlock.

Akane struggled, twisting back and forth, trying to get an arm around to dislodge the other girl's grip, but at that point she knew it was hopeless. Shampoo simply tightened her grip, compressing the arteries in Akane's neck, and within seconds she was forced to go limp, tapping Shampoo's arm twice as a sign of her surrender.

The Joketsuzoku warrioress relaxed her headlock, but did not release it. "Akane lose. Again." Shampoo purred the words into her rival's ear.

Such gloating was nothing new, of course. It was the usual result after one of their matches, one to which Akane had long since grown accustomed. And yet... today there was something off. Akane couldn't quite put her finger on it, but the other girl's words didn't have quite their usual smug self-satisfaction. Or rather, the smug self-satisfaction was there, but it sounded fake to her ears. Forced, somehow.

"Shampoo?" Akane asked, frowning. "Is... something the matter?"

For several long seconds there was no reply. The sudden, stony silence filled the air, until Akane began to think the other girl had simply refused to answer. That was even more puzzling. What could have upset the Joketsuzoku girl this much?

Then, at last, Shampoo spoke. Her words were slow, quiet, and studiously devoid of any emotion at all.

"Shampoo is walking along street by park two night ago," she said. "Shampoo see Akane and Ranma walking there too... but Shampoo think Akane and Ranma not realize Shampoo there."

Despite herself, Akane tensed. Shampoo had seen them? This was... not good. The things she and Ranma had been doing on that walk in the park hadn't been particularly compromising, but it was still much more open affection than they had wanted to admit publicly. Not until they had figured out a way to handle the resulting complications.

Only now, the complications had caught up unbidden. She could feel Shampoo's arm tighten slightly in its hold, and she was reminded that from this vulnerable position it would be child's play for Shampoo to snap her neck.

"Akane is not giving up on Ranma." It was not a question, just a simple statement of fact. "That mean, one day, this fight is for real. Is not about what Shampoo want. If Ranma choose Akane... then either Akane or Shampoo is dying. Is tribe law. Is Shampoo duty."

"There isn't any other way it can end?" asked Akane.

"No," was Shampoo's curt response. "Is none. And Akane not learning fast enough to even defend self. If Akane is smart, if Akane want have any chance to survive... is only one way."

Akane frowned. "What way is that?"

"Tell Ranma." The two simple words were spoken without hesitation. "If Akane tell Ranma... if Akane make Ranma understand what will happen, Ranma will..." The Joketsuzoku girl took a deep breath. "Ranma will protect Akane. Shampoo know. Even before Shampoo see what Akane and Ranma do in park... Shampoo know. Ranma will do whatever it take to protect Akane."

The young Tendo's heart sank, as she realized what the other girl believed would happen. "You actually think he'd kill you?" she asked, incredulous. "There's no way he would do anything like that. Even if he would, I... I wouldn't let him do anything like that to you!"

Shampoo tightened her headlock again at the words, to the point where it became painful once more. "Akane think this is game?" she hissed. "Akane think Shampoo not kill, if come to that?" Then she hesitated, and when she spoke again, it was in a small, broken voice. "Akane really think Shampoo can bear to face Ranma—can bear to look in Ranma eyes—after Akane dead at Shampoo hands?"

"I..." Akane managed to grate out, despite the pressure on her throat. "Shampoo, I don't know how any of this is going to work out. I really don't. But I do know that any solution that ends up with one of us killed is a solution I don't want any part of. I'd sooner call off the engagement myself than have you die over it!"

"Soft." The word was filled with bitterness and regret. "Akane is too, too soft. If Akane follow Joketsuzoku way, Akane is killing any enemy, any obstacle!"

Akane forced a deep, ragged breath past the arm constricting her neck. "Says the woman who's saved my life... what is it? Three times, now?"

Shampoo had no answer to that. The silence stretched on, until finally the Chinese girl released Akane from the headlock and shoved her face back down into the ground. The young Tendo winced, rubbing her neck as she rolled over, looking up again. "Listen, Shampoo—"

But Shampoo was already gone, vanishing just as quickly and silently as she had arrived.

His dark eyes burning with anticipation, Ariwara Akio checked his gear one last time before he began this morning's assassination. His katana, sheathed and strapped across his back. The throwing knives lining his belt and hidden in his boots. The black body armor hugging his lithe frame. And the specially modified spear with which he would shortly begin his assault.

He walked up to the edge of the skyscraper he was standing on, and looked across the dizzying gap over to the far higher skyscraper that was his target. The global headquarters of Tanizaki Heavy Industries, a towering edifice of steel and glass, which on its completion had surpassed the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building as the tallest building in Tokyo. It was a symbol of the power held by the eight trillion yen zaibatsu. The company had been owned by the Tanizaki family since its creation back in the Meiji era, with its fingers in countless legitimate enterprises, and whispered rumors of even more extensive dealings under the table.

Apparently, those dealings had become extensive enough that someone wanted the company's owner dead. It had all been done through intermediaries; Akio didn't know who had hired him to kill Tanizaki Kazuo, and he didn't care. All that mattered to him was that the unknown benefactor had given him a hundred million yen down payment, with another hundred million to follow on completion of the contract.

A shark-like smile crossed the assassin's face. Two hundred million yen in total—and all to do what he loved best in the world. What more could a man ask for?

Akio picked up his spear, glancing at the claw on the end of it, designed to punch deep into whatever wall he threw it at and there latch hold. He knew that his prey was in the enormous building at the moment, and most likely in his personal office on the topmost floor. His rope didn't have the length to reach that high, but he didn't mind that in the slightest. It would be more fun this way. He raised the spear, took careful aim, then hurled it with all his strength.

It shot across the dizzying chasm between the two buildings, the rope trailing in its wake, until the claw struck and embedded just below one of the building's countless windows. He then secured the other end of the rope to a hook he had prepared earlier, pulling it taut. And with that he burst into a run, racing up the slope of the cord like a tightrope.

He rocketed toward the building wall, picking up speed all the way. When the distance had closed to a few feet he lunged forward, crashing through the window in a shower of glass. Before his feet even landed he had drawn a throwing knife in each hand and hurled them at the nearest security guards. The spinning blades caught them each between the eyes, killing them before they could react.

Alarms began to blare, triggered by the broken window. People began to scream. Soon the hallway in front of him was filled with secretaries, office workers and other such pathetic sheep, all fleeing in terror. Akio ignored them. Their blood wouldn't even be worth dirtying his blades. Send someone strong against me! he thought, as he began to make his way down the hall. Someone who can actually get my blood boiling!

He hadn't made it more than a few strides before a squad of security guards came running up, pushing their way through the escaping civilians with their pistols drawn. But Akio was on them faster than they could react. His first kick sent the broken body of one of the guards through the nearest wall. He then grabbed the next-nearest guard by the front of his shirt and flung him bodily back down the hall. The man flew out the broken window, arms flailing, and plummeted out of sight with a scream.

One of the remaining guards had managed to get his gun pointed at the assassin. Akio waited until the man had started to pull the trigger, then moved, pulling another guard into the line of fire to be shot by his teammate. Akio then closed the distance between himself and the shooter while the guard's eyes were still widening in horror, and clasped his own hand over the man's gun hand.

From there he wrenched the gun over to point at a different guard, and used his own finger to force the guard's finger to pull the trigger. Then he twisted the guard's arm back so that his gun was pointing at his own head, and forced him to pull the trigger once again. He finished by kicking the corpse into the last remaining guard, sending them both sprawling.

Weaklings, he thought contemptuously, as he drew his katana to finish the downed man. No threat at all.

He continued to walk onward, killing his way through every guard that opposed him, until at last he reached his destination. A single pair of steel double-doors that marked the building's central elevator. He didn't bother trying to open them normally; access to the upper floors would doubtless be controlled by access codes he did not have. Instead he sheathed his sword, dug his fingers into the crack between the doors, and then simply wrenched them apart, revealing the open shaft beyond them.

Akio wasted no time in jumping through the opening. He grabbed onto the hanging elevator cable and began climbing hand-over-hand in a rapid ascent. This contract is fast becoming a disappointment, he thought. I expected a zaibatsu of this reputation to be able to afford far higher quality guards than this! Perhaps I should make a few... personal assassinations after this is over, for my own enjoyment. I want to kill someone challenging! Not some worthless businessman and his inept thugs.

Soon he reached the topmost doors, and proceeded to open them much as he had done the one below. And with that, he exited the elevator shaft and found himself at his destination.

The first thing he noticed was the windows. Huge, multi-pane windows that wrapped around the vast, circular chamber completely. Combined with the unmatched height of the building, the windows afforded a breathtaking view of Tokyo that stretched out in every direction.

Aside from that, the room was austere and spartan. A few tables here and there, with different technical-looking books and papers piled on them. On the far wall was a large computer setup with dozens of monitors, all currently blank. Several large steel pillars dotted the room, running from floor to ceiling. The silence of the room was eerie, broken only by the faint blaring of the alarms coming up the elevator shaft from far below.

The assassin shook himself out of his distraction, reminding himself that he had a job to do, however boring it was turning out to be. He just had to find Tanizaki himself, wherever he was hiding, kill the worm, and the remaining hundred million yen would be his. The "hard" part was over. Now only the search and the slaughter remained.

"You seem to have caused quite a commotion downstairs."

Akio whirled at the sudden voice, his hand reflexively shooting for his sword. His eyes widened a little when he saw who it was that had spoken. "You..." he murmured. "You're Tanizaki Kazuo!"

The man who had spoken was standing off to Akio's right, next to the wall of windows, looking out over the cityscape with his back to the assassin. He wore a simple black business suit, and he held his hands clasped behind him. His black hair had a few slight flecks of grey in it, and though Akio could not see his face directly, he could see a faint image of it reflected in the glass. This was unquestionably his target.

"Yes. I am," the man confirmed, with all the emotion of someone discussing the weather. "And you are Ariwara Akio. A freelance assassin, primarily employed by the Yakuza. You studied for eleven years under Master Hiyama Junichi, before leaving to pursue your own ambitions. There are thirty-seven murders officially associated with your name... as well as three more that you have taken great pains to hide from anyone else's knowledge."

Despite himself, Akio's eyes widened slightly. "How do you know that?" he demanded, trying not to show how unnerved he was. No one should have been able to link him to those three killings in Yokohama. If word got out... if his usual employers found out that he had been responsible for them...

"How I know is unimportant," Kazuo replied. "I understand you are here to make an attempt on my life?"

"Attempt?" responded Akio, trying to regain control of the conversation. "There's no 'attempt' about it. I'm going to kill you!" It wasn't even about the money now. This man knew far too much about him. He had to die, for that alone.

The older man snorted, and shifted his gaze to look at a different part of the city. "You think so? Then you'll have to do a bit better than the amateurish display you've put on so far."

The assassin eyes flashed, and he pulled one of his throwing knives from his belt. This conversation was over, and he wasn't going to spend any further time bantering with a dead man. Akio drew his arm back, and then hurled the blade, sending it spinning through the air right toward Kazuo's unprotected back.

Sheer, unthinking reflex was the only thing that saved Akio's life. One moment he was watching his weapon about to sink between Kazuo's shoulder blades. The next moment he was jerking his head left in a desperate dodge away from something too fast for his conscious mind to even register. He felt a burst of pain across his face and he lost his balance, falling to the ground in a tangle of limbs.

He raised a trembling hand to the right side of his face, and it came away covered in blood. Something had slashed that cheek completely open. He turned, his eyes following the trajectory from the cut, and saw his own throwing knife, now embedded to the hilt in one of the solid steel pillars, with enough force that it had sent cracks spiderwebbing through its entire structure.

Akio turned back, his eyes wide, to where Kazuo stood. The man's body was now turned slightly, his arm extended behind him in a throwing position. "Wha...?" managed Akio, his voice faltering. "...the hell did you just do?"

"That," replied Kazuo, his voice cold, "was the proper way to throw a knife." With those words, he finally turned around and faced his fallen opponent directly, looking down at him with merciless, coal-black eyes. He began to walk toward Akio, speaking as he went. "Well then. What are you waiting for, assassin? Don't you have a job to complete?"

Breathing hard, Akio scrambled back to his feet, whipped his sword from its sheath and held it defensively in front of himself. Kazuo continued to close, then halted just outside the reach of Akio's sword, watching with a look of invitation.

Akio licked his lips, circling to the left, then to the right, trying to decide on his avenue of attack. His opponent wasn't even in a stance; he simply stood there, following the assassin with his eyes. How is he going to react? wondered Akio, fighting back a sensation in his stomach that he refused to acknowledge as fear. I can't even determine his style. What am I up against?

He decided to lead with a feint, to get some kind of information before committing to a full attack. With a sudden burst of speed, he faked a high slash at Kazuo's head... only to have the man show no reaction at all to the pulled attack. Akio tried again, faking a low cut to the knee this time, but didn't get any reaction from that either, other than a look of mild disdain.

That disdain ignited Akio's anger. He would not let anyone make a fool out of him like this! This bastard wanted to play games, just standing there? He would make him pay for that. This time, when he lunged, it was a real attack, a thrust directly at his opponent's chest.

He had hardly even begun the attack when Kazuo stepped in, sliding around the oncoming blade with the smallest possible movement, and delivering a contemptuous backhand that caught Akio across the face. The sheer force of the blow nearly knocked him senseless, sending him spinning through the air to land in a crumpled heap. Akio staggered back to his feet, only to see that he had lost his grip on his sword when he had been hit. The weapon now lay at Kazuo's feet.

Kazuo glanced down at the fallen blade, then slid his foot underneath it and kicked it in an arc through the air, back into Akio's hands. Then he resumed waiting.

The assassin backed away, trying to get some distance. There's only one chance left, he thought. My ultimate technique. No holding back. I've got to hit him with everything I've got. Akio dropped into a deep stance, channeling all the ki he could muster in preparation for his next move. The Makaze-ken. He focused every sense, every muscle, every scrap of willpower he had, knowing that his life would depend on this being absolutely perfect.

Then he exploded toward Kazuo like a bullet fired from a gun, his body vanishing from sight as he hurtled in for a single, lunging slash. No one had ever been able to react fast enough to counter the technique. And—fueled by desperation—this was the fastest he had ever executed it.

One single step away from the point where Akio would have swung, Kazuo lunged forward to meet the assassin's charge by driving his foot down into Akio's knee, using his opponent's own momentum to help snap the joint. Akio screamed, his attack turning into a forward tumble. But Kazuo caught him by the throat before he could fall, and dragged him back to his feet. Kazuo's other hand shot out three times, the first stabbing a single finger into a point on his opponent's lower torso, the second jabbing two fingers into separate points on the man's neck, and the third pressing a point on his shoulder.

Then the pressure points activated, and Akio felt his limbs convulse and spasm, the muscles ripping themselves apart entirely on their own as he sobbed in agony. With that, Kazuo released his hold on the assassin, then drove a kick into his chest as he fell. The blow sent Akio flying back the length of the room, skidding along the floor until he hit the windows at the far end and stopped.

"How disappointing," remarked Kazuo, as he walked over to where Akio's thrashing body lay. "Rudimentary technique. Juvenile tactics. And an altogether overinflated view of your own abilities." He shook his head in disbelief. "I paid a hundred million yen just for your advance fee alone, and this is all the challenge you can offer?"

Even through the haze of pain choking his mind, Akio had finally realized just how in over his head he truly was. Kazuo continued to close in on him, and the assassin knew that his death was only moments away. "P- please..." he managed to gasp out. "Please... please... don't kill me... Please, I'll do anything... Please!"

At the words, Kazuo halted in his approach. A look of disgust crossed his face for a moment. Then he turned away from the defeated assassin, walking back toward the large computer at the far end of the room. Sudden hope flared in Akio. He wasn't going to kill him! He was going to let him live!

As he walked away, Kazuo made a small, backward gesture with one hand. "Zhang?" he said. "If you would be so kind as to dispose of this garbage for me?"

There was a sound of movement from high above, and a figure dropped down from the ceiling into view—one whose presence Akio had not sensed at all. It was a Chinese man with short-cropped black hair, dressed in long black robes that flowed around him as he fell. The man—Zhang—landed next to Akio, looking down at him expressionlessly.

The assassin tried to say something, but before he could, the man withdrew his hands from inside his voluminous sleeves. There was a single senbon needle held between his fingers. Then, with a blindingly-fast flick of those fingers, the needle was suddenly embedded in Akio's neck.

Akio felt his throat constricting, his breath heaving in and out as he began to cough up blood and bile. Poison! he realized. The needle... poisoned...

In mindless desperation he tried to crawl toward the robed man, hands scrambling to try and grab hold of his ankles. But Zhang simply turned and walked away to join Kazuo, paying no further attention to the dying man.

As his vision faded into darkness, the last thing Akio saw as he died was the symbol on the back of Zhang's robes. It was a single Chinese character, pure white against the black of the surrounding cloth.

The number four.

Kazuo pressed a series of buttons on one of the keyboards in front of him, causing large security shields to rise up from the floor to cover the panoramic windows surrounding the room. Once his sanctum was secure from outside observation he activated the computer system, causing the wall of monitors to flare to life, though they only showed a security lock screen. He then typed in his personal password, turned his head to the left to allow for a retinal scan, and then spoke for the voiceprint identifier. "Tanizaki Kazuo. Passphrase: 'The skillful fighter puts himself into a position which makes defeat impossible, and does not miss the moment for defeating the enemy.'"

With all the security checks passed, the monitors switched to displaying once again what he had been working on before the brief distraction. They currently showed a high-level view of his worldwide influence, both official and unofficial, of which "Tanizaki Heavy Industries" was only a small piece. A byzantine network of interconnected nodes, representing all manner of control mechanisms over individuals, corporations, governments, militias, and criminal organizations. The means of control varied: direct ownership, shell corporations, debts owed, bribery, blackmail. And other, even less savory means.

As he studied the diagram, Zhang came up behind him, taking his usual position at Kazuo's right. "I apologize for that, sir," the black-robed man said. "My sources painted a much higher picture of his abilities when I inquired about him."

Kazuo's response was a dismissive wave. "No matter. I really shouldn't expect to find a diamond like you every time I go rooting through the dungheap like this. Still... it has been far too long since I've had an opponent—other than yourself—who could make me truly work for a victory."

Zhang's mouth quirked up in a half-smile. "If you really want a good duel, you could always have Doctor Metzger thaw out the Wyrmspawn and release it from its bindings."

That prompted a short laugh from Kazuo, as he tapped a few keys to zoom in on a particular part of his empire, examining its current state in more detail. "Tempting! Very tempting. But as much as I'd enjoy the chance to fight it again, I doubt that even I could contain the battle that would result. Fun is fun, but something like that slaughtering its way through Tokyo is more attention than we can afford at this phase of the plan."

"True enough," agreed Zhang. "Maybe we can release it later, then—after we've finished dealing with the Sailor Senshi."

"It would make for an enjoyable victory celebration. Do you have an update on the project's status?"

"Doctor Metzger says that he has finished his physical evaluation of Unit Zero," Zhang told him dutifully. "And Ekim will shortly complete his testing of the mystical aspects. So far they have found no problems at all."

"Excellent." Kazuo smiled, even as he scaled the view on the monitors back to the worldwide view, looking with calculating eyes at the image of the planet, as though it were merely one enormous chessboard. "Then within the week we should be ready to initiate the final phase of the plan."

"And when we do... the hand of man will shake the very pillars of heaven itself."

Beneda hurried up to the door of Ucchan's, peering inside through the windows before knocking on the door. The silver-haired, currently-human girl was dressed in a long white dress, with a decorative green ribbon around her neck. A slight frown crossed her features. This was—technically—after hours, and she wasn't sure Ukyo was still around. But, having come this far, she knocked anyway.

As it turned out, her worries were unfounded. After a few seconds Ukyo appeared out of the restaurant's back room and opened the door. "Beneda! Come in!"

The sometime-youma entered her friend's establishment, glancing around as she did so. She still wasn't entirely used to this new location, even though Ukyo had been operating out of it for almost half a year. The growing success and acclaim of the okonomiyaki chef's business had eventually meant that her old building had become too small to handle the resulting crowds, forcing a move to this larger place. It was a full-scale restaurant now, with quite a few tables filling the dining area, as opposed to having simply the counter running around the grill.

It was a sign of the young woman's success that even this place was starting to get packed again, especially during the lunch hours. But then, for an entrepreneur like Ukyo, an overabundance of customers was a nice problem to have.

"I'm glad I caught you," said Beneda. "I lost track of time studying one of Doctor Tofu's scrolls, and I was afraid you might have gone home already."

Ukyo shook her head. "No, I'm actually meeting some prospective customers here in just a bit," she explained. "They're interested in me catering an event for them, and this was the only time it worked out between our schedules to discuss the details."

The catering angle had been another recent addition to Ukyo's business. She had only done a handful of such jobs so far, but they had all been highly successful and she continued to advertise the service as best she could. Beneda was inspired—and a little bit awed—by the young woman's drive. But then, it was difficult for the sometime-youma to imagine Ukyo putting less than a hundred and ten percent of her effort into anything.

"So what brings you here?" continued the nineteen-year-old chef. "Looking for a little late dinner? I could fire up the grill while I'm waiting..."

"No, it isn't that," Beneda said. "I was just wondering if you had run into Ryouga lately, or if you'd heard anything about where he might be wandering, or... anything."

Ukyo's expression immediately became one of understanding, and she shook her head. "No, sorry. I haven't seen any sign of him in weeks."

The currently-human youma sighed, as her face fell. She hadn't really expected Ukyo to have news that the others didn't, but she'd had to try. "I just... want to make sure he's all right," she said. "I know he already gave up on Akari, but even so... it can't be easy on him to suddenly hear that she's getting married. He shouldn't be alone for something like that. You know how bad his depression can get—even in a normal situation."

"I'm sure he'll be all right, sugar," Ukyo reassured her, trying her best to ease the youma's worries. "He's used to working these kind of things through on his own, after all."

But he shouldn't need to do it alone! Beneda thought. He ought to be here, where he had friends who cared about him, who could be there for him in tough times, like he had been there for her. But instead he was out there, lost as always. And he would stay that way until the whims of chance brought his wanderings back to someplace he knew once again.

Her thoughts were interrupted, however, by another knock at the restaurant door. Both girls turned at the noise. "Oh, that must be them," Ukyo said, and hurried over to where the sound was coming from, with Beneda following a bit behind. "Welcome!" the okonomiyaki chef exclaimed, as she opened the door. "I'm glad you could make it!"

The prospective customers—two young women—smiled back. "Thank you for agreeing to meet us at this hour, and at such short notice," one of them said, an elegant beauty with marine-blue hair. "We very much appreciate this."

"Not a problem!" was Ukyo's immediate reply. "You said over the phone that this was for... a birthday party, right? Is it one of yours?"

The other young woman—an athletic-looking blonde, her hair cropped short—shook her head and laughed. "No it's for some friends of ours," she replied. "We're just helping out a little, since the size of the party... well, it got away from them, just a bit. Anyway, one of the birthday girls is apparently quite a fan of your restaurant, and she suggested that we look into your catering services, considering just how many guests we'll be having."

The blue-haired girl, meanwhile, had noticed Beneda standing a slight ways off. "Oh, hello," she said in a friendly tone of voice. "Do you work here at the restaurant as well?"

"No, I'm just a friend paying a visit," Beneda explained. "I'm sorry, I didn't realize when I came over that Ukyo had a meeting scheduled."

The blonde made a dismissive wave. "Don't worry about it. It's no problem at all."

"Thank you." the currently-human youma gave the two of them a grateful bow. "At any rate, it's nice to meet you. My name is Beneda."

The two young women returned the bow. "It's nice to meet you as well, Beneda," the blue-haired one said pleasantly. "My name is Kaioh Michiru, and this is Tenoh Haruka."