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: Really sorry for the lateness of this chapter. Combination of work and Real Life distractions in general taking up a whole lot of time, as usual.
Speaking of "time", though, here's a fun little bit of trivia: in a little over a week (on May 30th) the "Dark Lords" series as a whole will hit its tenth birthday! It's... actually a little bit mind-boggling for me to think about. To take a step back and compare how the story actually turned out with all the initial ideas I had way back then in 2007. Thinking about what parts shifted from my outline (and what parts stayed the same) over the years...
Anyway—while thanks are always in order—this time in particular I want to give an extra-special thank you to everyone who ever reviewed (or PMed or used any other method) to let me know how you felt about the story. There's no way I would have been able to make it a whole decade working on this story if I'd been writing in a vacuum, and it's you guys who gave me the encouragement (and criticism) necessary to keep working away at it and trying to improve. Even while being patient with long delays like this most recent one.
You guys rock, is what I'm saying.
At any rate, without further ado...
Chapter Fifteen: Dreams for Tomorrow
"You don't have to be afraid of him, you know."
Usagi—or at least, her semi-transparent astral projection—stood in the bare metal cell, looking across it at her double. The clone had flattened herself against the far wall, looking back at Usagi with terror in her eyes. It hurt Usagi to think that she was the cause of such primal fear, so she tried her best to assuage it.
"I know you're in a really bad spot," she said. "I... don't know how to fix it. I'm sorry. But at the very least, you shouldn't let Tanizaki use you to hurt other people! Even if you don't want to give the Silver Crystal back, you could at least run away, go someplace safe. With the power you have now, I'm sure you could pull it off!"
If her words had any persuasive effect, it wasn't apparent. The trembling clone just stared back at her, as though trying to wrap her mind around the very concept of deliberately disobeying her master. The only change was that she seemed to grow even more fearful of her than before at the suggestion.
"Okay..." Usagi said, raising her hands placatingly. "Okay, we don't need to rush things. If you don't want to do it right now, that's all right. Just... think about it, okay? Tanizaki is just using you, and it's only going to get worse the longer it goes on. But whatever happens, or whatever you need, I just want you to know that I'm here for you."
A hint of puzzlement flickered through the clone's eyes, as she tried to understand why Usagi would say this. But before Usagi could say any more, she heard footsteps approaching the cell from outside. They stopped at the door, and then it began to swing open. Hurriedly, Usagi dispelled her projection, her image vanishing as her consciousness returned to the celestial rotunda where Queen Serenity was waiting.
"How did it go?" asked her mother, looking up at her return. "Did she listen to you?"
"I don't know," Usagi admitted. "I didn't get to talk with her as much as I wanted. Someone was coming, and I had to get out of there before they saw me." The astral projection might allow her to talk to her double, but Queen Serenity had also explained how fragile it was. If Tanizaki ever realized what she was trying to do, it would be easy for him to counter her.
And I can't let that happen, Usagi thought. This is my best chance. One way or another, I have to find a way to save her.
Aino Minako sat next to Beneda at Mousse's bedside, watching the handsome young man as he lay there, his chest rising and falling with each shallow breath. He was still comatose, his body fighting to metabolize the poison it had been infected with. However, according to Ami he had stabilized and was now out of immediate danger.
It was a definite relief for Minako. Mousse had turned the corner, and Usagi was holding steady too. And with Chibi-Usa's new plan they were poised to throw a wrench into the gears of Tanizaki's plan. If all went well they would soon end his threat for good, which was enough to ignite Minako's irrepressible enthusiasm.
There was only one problem: right now there was nothing she could do to help with any of it, leaving her in a state of antsy anticipation.
Still, despite her good spirits, she eventually noticed that the youma sitting next to her was not nearly so energized. Beneda was looking in Mousse's direction, but staring through him, her thoughts clearly elsewhere. Minako cocked her head, leaning a little to get a better look, then spoke up. "Are you okay?"
Beneda looked up, startled. "Just... thinking," she said, though her hesitance made it obvious that something was left unsaid. Minako didn't press, but eventually Beneda continued. "I'm... afraid the other monsters in the Dark Kingdom might be plotting something against you Senshi."
Minako's heart clenched a little at the words. With everything else that was against them, were they going to face danger from the ones they were trying to help as well? "Are you sure?" she asked.
"No, not at all." Beneda shook her head. "I've been so busy treating the sick Daimons—and then Mousse—that I haven't had much time to talk with them. But... I've noticed things. Hushed conversations. The way they look at you when one of you goes into the Dark Kingdom. They're plotting something. I recognize the signs. I was... just like them once."
The youma looked down again, her hands wringing together in conflicted anxiety. "I want to believe that they have more gratitude than that," she said, her voice barely above a whisper. "And it could all just be my imagination! But... I thought you should know, so you can be on your guard. I already led you into a trap, years ago. I won't do it again."
Seeing the worry in Beneda's eyes—both for the Senshi and for the other monsters—caused Minako's determination to rise. "But you don't know for sure that anything bad is going on, right?" she asked. "It could all just be a misunderstanding. So instead of worrying about it... let's find out for sure!"
Beneda looked up, puzzled. "What do you mean?"
"I mean we need to investigate!" said Minako, clenching her fist exuberantly. "We'll go through the portal and find out for ourselves what's really going on, so we can clear all of this up!"
"Ummm..." Beneda hesitated, trying to find the right words. "Don't you think you would... well... stand out a bit too much for that?"
But Minako only winked at her. Then she darted out of the room, down the hallway and into the small office where Ami had holed up. The blue-haired girl was still there, staring at her Mercury Computer as she searched through more of the data she had stolen from Tanizaki's computers. "Ami!" Minako called out. "Do you still have the Luna Disguise Pen from when you used it in the attack? I need to borrow it!"
Ami looked up from the glowing screen, blinked, then dug into her pocket and pulled out the familiar magical trinket. "All right," she said, sounding confused. "What do you need it for?"
"Secret mission!" replied Minako with a madcap grin, as she plucked the pen from her friend's hand. At last, here was something useful, something she could do rather than just waiting around helplessly for the chance to act.
This was going to be fun.
Jimenko stroked her chin in thought, as the lemure listened to the latest report on the progress of their nefarious cabal. It wasn't looking good. "So Sailor Uranus is a tough nut to crack," she mused. "Well, we knew this plan wouldn't be easy going into it."
Around her, other monsters filled the room they had commandeered in the ruins of Beryl's old castle, all of them intent on their task. "I still think this would be easier if we knew more about human mating habits," said Trakil. "She didn't get excited at all when I brought up all the benefits of being his concubine. How are we supposed to seduce her on Lord Ranma's behalf if we don't even know what Earth women want?"
"I had an idea about that!" spoke up one of the youma, excitedly. "While they were attacking Tanizaki's skyscraper, I disguised myself and snuck out to the human world to look for research material on human romance!"
"Did you find anything?" asked Jimenko.
By way of an answer, the youma held out several books in front of her with a triumphant grin. Jimenko leaned in closer to read the title of the topmost one: "Shoujo Manga Anthology, volume 32." A low murmur ran through the assembled monsters, and they crowded in closer, eager to see what secrets the strange tomes contained.
After a half-hour of intent study, Trakil spoke up. "So this is how humans work out their sexual relationships?" she said. "Hmmm... Maybe Sailor Uranus isn't as much of a lost cause as she seems. According to these examples, the female expressing distaste or anger toward a male is actually a sign that she secretly wants him."
"Really?" asked one of the daimons, perking up. "So when Sailor Uranus told me that she'd rather eat rusted nails than become Lord Ranma's lover... that might have been her way of showing interest?"
"It's possible." Jimenko looked down at the books thoughtfully. "Either way, we need to do more research, figure out exactly how this works in the human world so we can improve our strategy."
The other monsters voiced their agreement, but anything further was interrupted as the door to their room swung open. The monsters turned to look, as two more beings entered. One was Beneda—finally taking a break from her medical duties—but the other was a monster Jimenko had never seen before.
The new monster had dark blue skin, and wore a red leotard with a white helmet atop her head, from which yellow hair poured in a crazy, looping hairstyle. There was a large golden heart emblazoned across her chest, as well as two smaller hearts on the spherical pauldrons on her shoulders. Jimenko's eyes narrowed. "Who are you?"
"She's a daimon from the group we rescued from Tanizaki's skyscraper," said Beneda hurriedly. "I'm showing her around."
"The name's Minaxa!" chirped the new monster, flashing them a wide smile. "Nice to meet you!"
Jimenko nodded. If she was a daimon, then it made sense that she was unfamiliar. Doctor Metzger was always creating new ones in his attempt to perfect his Daimon Egg formula. She must have been created in the skyscraper, and this was her first time in the Dark Kingdom.
"So whatcha doing?" Minaxa asked, curious. "We were talking to people, and we heard that there was some kind of meeting going on here, so we decided to check it out."
Jimenko exchanged a wary glance with the others. They didn't want the exact details of their plan becoming too widely known, given how catastrophic it would be if the Sailor Senshi ever learned of it. Still, if there was anyone it would be good to bring into their confidence it was Beneda, given how well she knew the Dark Lords.
"We talked it over and came to a decision," Jimenko said. "Our old masters are gone, and all we have left are disorganized remnants. We decided to all throw in with the Dark Lords of Nerima... and help them to finally claim victory over the Sailor Senshi once and for all!"
Beneda blanched at the words. "Are you crazy?" she blurted out, her eyes going wide. "You think Ranma and his friends want to fight the Sailor Senshi? You think starting up a new battle will make them happy with you?"
"No, no, no!" interjected Trakil, waving her hands. "We know they aren't aiming for a straight-up battle yet. We figured it all out yesterday—how they're trying to seduce the Sailor Senshi and corrupt as many of them as they can over to their side! That's what we're trying to help with!"
"That's... I... You..." Beneda struggled for words, her tone flabbergasted. "You're... seriously trying to defeat the Sailor Senshi by setting them up romantically with martial artists from Nerima? That's—"
"—absolutely brilliant!" interrupted Minaxa. The eyes of the newcomer daimon shone with a sudden fervor, and Jimenko could see she understood the genius of the plan. "Is there anything I can do to help?"
Beneda's mouth opened, trying to form words as she looked in incredulity at Minaxa, then over to Jimenko, then back to Minaxa again. The new daimon ignored her, however, and kept right on talking. "Also... which Sailor Senshi are you starting with? Personally, I think Sailor Venus would make a good target! What if we set her up with... oh, I don't know... maybe that Mousse boy, once he wakes up? I bet she wouldn't be able to resist that!"
More monsters broke in with their own opinions, the earlier debate on who to pair with who reigniting as more and more of them started talking over each other with their own opinions. Minaxa was right in the thick of it all, like a dynamo, making her case with impassioned words and wild gesticulations.
Jimenko considered it. She had to admit, Minaxa's enthusiasm for their scheme was infectious, and the tactics she was suggesting were impressively sly. They could use more monsters with her kind of drive and diabolical cunning. "All right," she said at last, once the debate had died down a little. "It could be worth a try. We've been focusing on Sailor Uranus, but it might not be a bad idea to have multiple fronts active. We can delegate some resources toward ensnaring Sailor Venus too."
"Perfect!" exulted Minaxa, grinning. "I promise, you won't regret it. The Sailor Senshi aren't going to know what hit them!"
Jimenko couldn't help but give a gleeful little cackle at the thought. Minaxa picked it up, snickering as well, and from there it spread until the assembled monsters were throwing their heads back, sharing a round of good, solid maniacal laughter together.
Over an hour later, Beneda gave the now-undisguised Minako a sidelong look as the two of them hiked through the rocky tunnels of the Dark Kingdom, back toward the portal to the human world. "I still can't believe that you went along with all that."
"What?" protested Minako, affecting a look of innocence. "I was just doing my part to keep them out of trouble. Better they work on this than something really evil, you know?"
"How selfless of you," Beneda deadpanned. "And of course, your own interest in Mousse had nothing to do with it."
Minako let slip a small, goofy little smile. "Well... maybe. But what girl would turn down a little help in the romance department?"
"I'm pretty sure most girls aren't going around hijacking millennia-old evil empires to act as their dating service."
"Hmph. Then maybe those girls don't have enough ambition." Minako stretched her arms above her head, then stifled a sleepy yawn. "Anyway, I had a great time even aside from all that. Jimenko's kind of a grouch, but you can see how much she cares about the other lemures. And Darika had some interesting ideas about dates. And it was fun answering Kethani's questions about those manga they had. They're actually pretty fun to hang out with, when they're not... you know. Trying to kill us."
"It's much better now than it was under Beryl," said Beneda, her tone growing somber. "They've been through a lot, and I think it's brought the different groups closer together. Maybe even helped them to see some things that they would never have been able to see when they were just conquerors. Ryo and the other Great Youma have helped them a lot too. And now they've been rescued by humans. I just hope we can keep showing them a better way forward, bit by bit."
"Of course we will!" said Minako, radiating optimism as she draped a friendly arm around Beneda's shoulder. "And the first step to that is kicking Tanizaki's butt to make sure he can't hurt them or anyone else again! C'mon, let's hurry back. It's almost time for Chibi-Usa's plan to start, and I don't want to miss any of it."
"...and once again, the Prime Minister in a joint statement with Mr. Tanizaki has urged the Sailor Senshi and their allies to turn themselves in peacefully, guaranteeing that they will be offered a fair trial for their crimes should they do so. Meanwhile, sources in the JSDF have speculated that—"
Both the sound and the flickering visuals from the old television blinked out as Endo Yuudai hit the power button on his remote. The small, cozy living room fell into silence and grew noticeably darker without the illumination. He hadn't noticed how late it had grown until that moment. The news reports had been talking in circles for a while now, but the claims were so incredible that it had arrested his attention regardless.
From her chair on the other side of the room, his wife Michiko looked over at him. "You don't think it's really true, do you?"
Yuudai sighed, then shrugged his shoulders. He was just a simple office worker; how was he supposed to know what to make of something like this? Still, he had to say something. "I'm not sure..." he told her. "Every other time the Sailor Senshi have attacked someplace like this, the news said afterward that they had saved us again. But... all the reporters do seem convinced that they were in the wrong this time."
"Well I don't believe it," Michiko said. "We know what heroes those girls are! They've saved people so many times! But now we're supposed to take the word of some reclusive billionaire over theirs? I don't think I've seen this... 'Tanizaki' fellow make a single statement in public before today! You mark my words, once the Sailor Senshi finally beat him, we'll probably find out he was just another one of those shapeshifting monsters trying to steal our energy!"
"Maybe," said Yuudai, noncommittally. "But either way, there's not much you or I can do about it, is there? Whether they're in the right or the wrong, we'll just have to see how it all turns out."
Michiko didn't look happy, but there wasn't anything she could say against his point. They were just two ordinary people, after all, and this was something far bigger than either of them. Eventually, as night continued to fall, they headed upstairs to their bedroom and went to sleep.
When Yuudai opened his eyes again, it was not to the darkened shadows of his bedroom. Rather, it was to color. Rich, vibrant color, infusing the sky, the grass and the trees of the beautiful forest in which he found himself standing. He drew in a breath of the clean, crisp air, marveling at the sight before him.
It should have been unfamiliar, but it was not. He had been here before on countless occasions, only to have the memory fade from him on waking as dreams so often did. But this time was different. He was not viewing his surroundings through sleep-dulled senses. Somehow, he was experiencing this place with his full awareness.
"I apologize for disturbing your normal sleep," came a voice from behind him. Yuudai turned, and saw a large white horse standing there, with wings and a golden horn. "Normally, the dream fog would make this a more restful experience for you, but I've forgone that tonight in favor of a lucid dream."
"Pegasus..." Yuudai murmured. It was a name connected with this place, another memory brought into focus by the lucidity of his visit here. The guardian who had defended his slumber since childhood, fighting back the nightmares and encouraging his deepest dreams and aspirations. How long had it been since he had stopped listening to that voice? How long since he had succumbed to the drudgery of the 'adult' world, and told himself that was all he could allow himself to expect?
"Yuudai," was the winged horse's warm response, and the human was surprised to note that Pegasus still remembered his name. "What I am doing tonight is... unprecedented. But we face an unprecedented danger, and I was convinced by someone I care about of the necessity. Please, if you are willing, there is someone who I would ask that you listen to."
"Of course," Yuudai told him. "If you think it's that important. But... why me? I'm just a washed-up manager in a dead-end job. A nobody."
"I do not believe that," replied Pegasus without hesitation. "I have never believed that. You are not a 'nobody'. And in addition to that..."
As Pegasus spoke their surroundings shifted, giving Yuudai a slight sense of vertigo. When it subsided, he found himself in a large, open field. As he watched, more and more figures faded into view all around him, appearing by the tens, by the hundreds, by the thousands, by the tens of thousands and beyond. With a start, Yuudai realized that they were all like him, people who had accepted Pegasus' request.
The winged horse, on the other hand, was vanishing from Yuudai's sight at the same time. But as he disappeared, he finished his assurance. "In addition to that... you are not alone either."
Ranma watched as an enormous mass of people phased into the confines of the dreamscape. He wasn't standing in the main crowd himself, but a good distance off to the side, on a small rise along with Sailor Pluto. Most of the other martial artists were awake, guarding the real world in case Tanizaki tried to attack while they were pulling this off, and the other Sailor Senshi were elsewhere, preparing for their part. But Ranma had wanted to see how this went down for himself.
As he watched, more and more dreamers appeared, and from Ranma's perspective they seemed to be superimposing on each other, multiple semi-transparent crowds overlaid one on top of the other. Well, that's one way to give everyone a decent seat for the show, he thought.
He glanced over at the architect of all this, the skinny-looking kid in the white robes. Helios was standing off to Ranma's right with a look of intense concentration on his face. On the other side stood an older girl with long black hair. She surveyed the crowd with a disinterested gaze, while playing idly with the links of the chain that bound her arms and legs, stretching off into the distance.
For some reason he felt a chill run through him, right down to his bones, just from looking at her. As if she could feel his attention on her, she glanced up. And when her blood-red eyes met his he saw a look of raw hunger enter her gaze.
He was about to ask what her deal was... when suddenly, from behind him, he felt the heat of something breathing, felt the soft brush of whiskers against the back of his neck.
He couldn't see what it was. It was just barely on the edge of his peripheral vision. But he knew. He knew. His body went rigid as a board, frozen in irrational terror, caught between the need to see and the horror of what he would find.
Ranma heard the purr as though it came from centimeters away from his ear. He screamed, launching himself away, as he whirled around. But he saw nothing there, only the empty grass. He whirled back and forth, trying to see where it had gone, trying to look in every direction at once, but to no avail.
Sailor Pluto looked at him with a puzzled expression. As his breathing calmed, he realized that she had not seen anything, had not even heard the meow. He turned back to the strange girl, in time to see her lick her lips in a long, sensuous motion, her eyes still focused on him with rapt attention.
But Ranma's cry had attracted Helios' attention as well. He looked at Ranma, then over to the dark-haired girl, and seemed to grasp what was going on. His hand shot out, grabbing the girl's arm. As he touched her, the golden runes on her manacles and chains glowed with increased intensity. The two of them locked gazes, anger in Helios' expression, while the girl merely looked amused. But finally she gave in, giving Helios an acquiescing nod. He held his grip for a few moments longer, then finally released her, returning to his task.
His hands still shaking, Ranma turned away from them and toward... anyone else. In that case, "anyone else" ended up being Sailor Pluto. "So..." he said with forced casualness, hating the residual tremor in his voice that he could not completely hide. "Looks like we got half of Japan out there."
"More than that," was Sailor Pluto's response. If she noticed how unnerved he was, she mercifully did not comment on it. "As many people from across the nation as would listen to Helios' request. And given his history with all these dreamers, it's no surprise that so many agreed."
Before Ranma could say anything further, he saw the rest of the Sailor Senshi, along with Tuxedo Kamen, step into view atop a large rise in the ground, much closer to the crowd than he and Sailor Pluto were. A murmur ran through the immense crowd, as they saw who was about to address them. Tuxedo Kamen looked out across them all... and then he removed his hat and mask, showing them his unhidden face. This prompted another murmur, quieter this time.
"Thank you for agreeing to listen to us," Tuxedo Kamen spoke out in a strong, clear voice that reverberated across the field, filled with purpose and conviction. "I know you've heard some troubling claims from the news reports. We wanted a chance to tell you the truth about what happened."
"Tanizaki is lying to you!" added Sailor Chibi-moon, pleading with the onlookers to understand with the desperation of a child begging for her mother's life. "He's the one who's been attacking us for days now! We went to his headquarters to stop his plan, but he hurt Sailor Moon instead, and now he wants to finish her off!"
Sailor Mercury spoke next. "He has people all throughout the government and media that he's bribed or blackmailed or manipulated through various channels," she explained. "He's been using that leverage to attack us. We have names and data that we found in his computer systems, information we can share with anyone who's in a position to investigate it."
After her, Tuxedo Kamen picked up where she had left off. "This is a threat we won't be able to defeat without your help," he said. "Not this time. This enemy isn't like the enemies we've fought before. He wields a different kind of strength. But that means he has different weaknesses as well. I do not believe that he can stop all of us working together. I do not believe that the greed and ambition of one man is more powerful than the compassion and goodwill you hold in your hearts. I do not believe that this world is so weak as to lose to the likes of him!"
He continued to speak, exhorting the crowd, his voice brimming with purpose and urgency. And though Ranma wasn't usually one for speeches, even he felt his heart beating a little bit faster on hearing the man's passionate words. Ranma leaned over to Sailor Pluto. "He's pretty good at this, isn't he?"
"It is one of his skills," replied Sailor Pluto, without taking her eyes off Tuxedo Kamen. "One that Sailor Moon has relied on from the beginning, perhaps even more so than his combat prowess. This skill of finding the right words."
"The right words?" Ranma asked, skeptical. "How was that any use to her? I mean... it's all right for something like this, but it doesn't seem all that great when you're up against the kind of monsters you've been fighting up until now."
"Do not underestimate the significance of words like his," Sailor Pluto said. "Words like his can lend strength to hearts that are afraid, unsure. Words like his can inspire courage and hope."
Together, both Ranma and Sailor Pluto looked over the assembled throng, watching faces that were increasingly alight with excitement the more they listened. As they did, Sailor Pluto spoke. "Words like his can help people see just how strong they truly are."
Tuxedo Kamen had lost track of exactly how long he had been talking for. He'd begun with an idea of what he'd intended to say, and while he had addressed most of those points, he had let the inspiration of the moment carry him. There was so much he had to convey the listeners, so much information, so much emotion, so much desperation to save Usagi. There was so much that he felt as though he would burst, but he packed as much of it as he could into every word, every urging, every entreaty.
His throat was dry, while his palms were clammy with sweat. So much was riding on this one chance to convince those who were listening. They had explained the details of Tanizaki's operation, the domination he hoped to achieve. They had described his heinous methods, even brought forward the four children that Sailor Mars and Konatsu had rescued from Ekim to speak of their ordeal. It had made his blood boil just listening their story, even though he'd already known what to expect.
But, in the end, there was only so much he could say. When he sensed that he was nearing that limit, he paused. Looking out over the sea of countless faces, the people that he was charged to defend, he drew in a deep breath. Then he bowed, lowering his head before them.
"Please," he asked them, his voice thick with feeling. "Please. We have to stop him. And we can't do it without you. Please."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the other Sailor Senshi on either side of him begin to bow as well. He clenched his fists tight in apprehension, knowing that there was nothing more he could do. He could speak as best he could... but in the end, it all came down to the choices of those who were listening.
And so he stood there in the sudden silence, uncertainty a leaden weight in his stomach, not knowing what their response would be.
Yuudai looked up at the Sailor Senshi as they bowed, his eyes wide. He had never actually seen them in person, and he was struck by how young most of them looked. He'd heard descriptions, of course, but it had somehow never quite sunk in that humanity had been relying on children to fight for them all these years.
A tense, expectant silence filled the air for a heartbeat, and then another. Yuudai looked down at his hands, and suddenly a reckless determination swelled up from inside him. He still didn't know what he could do. He was still just an ordinary salaryman, a dead-end office worker who had never accomplished anything noteworthy. But if there was something he could do somehow... he wanted to do it. He wanted to do it so badly that it felt like the desire was burning him from the inside out.
They've been risking their lives to protect us all this time, he thought. This time, it's our turn to fight for them.
Almost without realizing it Yuudai's fist shot up, and he shouted out a wordless cheer. For a moment it hung in the air... and then it was joined by another, and then another, and then more and more, spreading through the immense crowd like wildfire. The more people joined in, the more the momentum grew. Soon the sound was like thunder, the combined voices of millions upon millions of humans giving simultaneous voice to their determination. The cheers were so loud that they struck Yuudai in the chest like a hammer, but he was so caught up in the moment that he barely noticed.
Eventually, after enough time that Yuudai lost track of the length, the cheering quieted and Tuxedo Kamen spoke again. "Thank you," he said, emotion choking his voice. "I... Thank you. Whatever Tanizaki is planning, as long as we stand together I have faith that he will never prevail."
Yuudai smiled, the words warming him. But while he was determined to help, he was still unsure as to how. The answer, however, was not long in coming. Once Tuxedo Kamen had finished addressing the crowd, the dream shifted again. The human figures around him faded in and out of view, until he was standing in a new group. While still huge, this one wasn't as enormous as the previous one, and Yuudai recognized many of them, including his wife. This was a group from his area.
He saw Pegasus standing in the center of them, and the winged horse spoke, addressing them all. "I thank you as well for your willingness to help," he said. "I will do everything I can to help you plan and coordinate your efforts."
"Well..." said a hesitant voice from the crowd, someone Yuudai couldn't see. "Didn't Tuxedo Kamen say that this Tanizaki guy was working through government corruption? I mean, we've all heard the news, right? We should speak up, let them know we won't stand for that! Let them know we can see who the real heroes are!"
"Yeah!" called out someone else. "A protest! We need to make sure they can't ignore us!"
Murmurs of agreement ran through the crowd, building in enthusiasm. Soon a middle-aged man stepped forward. His features were hard and weathered, but Yuudai could see the same spark of purpose burning in the man's eyes as he felt in himself. "Well if that's what you want, we should do it right," the main said. "I was part of the student protests in the sixties, and I've seen a thing or two about what works and what doesn't when it comes to making yourself heard."
Other people began to speak up, adding their own ideas and input. Ordinary people from all walks of life. One offered a printing service that could provide signs, while many others offered to help with transportation, with Pegasus giving guidance as well as coordinating with all the other innumerable groups like theirs, which according to him were coming to many of the same conclusions.
They continued to talk, and Yuudai listened in rapt attention as the beginnings of a strategy began to take shape before his eyes.
Meanwhile, in a different section of that ephemeral realm, even as Yuudai participated in the planning for what was to come, a different man was also talking with a manifestation of Pegasus. The conversation in that case, however, was not nearly so warm.
Mr. Nagai, Tanizaki's chief political and business advisor, stared at the large winged unicorn, fighting back the urge to fidget. He couldn't read those solemn eyes, couldn't tell what the creature was thinking. The short man licked his lips, then finally spoke, his tone defensive. "What? Did you expect me to be moved by that little sob story he gave?"
"I had hoped you might." Pegasus' voice was quiet and measured. "I still remember a little boy who played in these fields, who would tell me excitedly of his dreams to paint beautiful pictures for everyone to enjoy."
Nagai couldn't entirely conceal his flinch. "That was a long time ago," he said, looking away. "Back before I learned how the world really works."
"The world doesn't have to work the way you believe it does," Pegasus urged him. "The way men like Tanizaki have taught you to see it. You can make a difference. You can help us stop him. It's not too late, Masuyo."
Nagai's heart clenched. He could hear the concern in Pegasus' words, and for a terrible moment he was tempted. Could he do it? Could he side with these idealistic children? Could he forget the danger and the risk of turning on his employer?
But then he remembered the cost, reminded himself of how much he would have to give up to do that. All that had gained and achieved with Tanizaki, the power, the position, the prestige that he had spent his life building. He couldn't just throw all of that away. Instead, he clenched his fists. "What would you know?" he shot back. "Some dream horse floating around in an imaginary wonderland, spouting platitudes? You don't know what it takes to make it out there in reality. Why should I have to sacrifice everything I've accomplished just to help some girls I don't even know?"
"For the same reason those girls have been willing to sacrifice everything they are for the sake of people they do not know," said Pegasus. "Love. And justice. I appeal to whatever love still exists in your heart toward your fellow humans. I appeal to whatever sense of justice still guides your actions. Those should still be enough to show you what you should do. And if not... then even less of you remains than I had thought."
Nagai's jaw tightened. "I have nothing more to say to you."
The winged unicorn closed his eyes, then bowed his head. "As you wish."
And with that, Nagai fell into a dreamless sleep.
"Mr. Nagai! Mr. Nagai, please wake up!"
Groggily, Nagai pulled himself up into a sitting position, shaking away the heavy vestiges of sleep as he looked with bleary eyes around his living quarters in Tanizaki's skyscraper. A glance at the clock showed that it was nearly noon. Why had he slept so long? One of his subordinates—a man called Sato—was standing over him, shaking him awake.
For a moment longer his thoughts remained clouded. Then, in a rush, he remembered everything. Pegasus. The dream. His eyes widened and he scrambled out of bed. "Give me a status report!" he barked. "We have to get on top of this right away. Figure out how much penetration their message has gotten and launch a counter-PR campaign. Get Tanaka and Nakamura working on a way to spin this, and start working through our channels so we can get this to the media outlets as soon as we can."
Sato flinched. "Um, sir... I don't know how to say this, but... Tanaka called in this morning to say that he quit. We're not sure about Nakamura, but he hasn't come in either, and we haven't heard from him."
Nagai's jaw dropped, the news throwing a wrench into his mental momentum. "Our... own people?" he managed. He had expected that some number of the ignorant masses would be swayed by the Senshi appeal, at least at first. But he hadn't expected such sentimentality from anyone who was actually part of Tanizaki's machine. A mounting apprehension began to churn in his stomach. "How bad is it?"
"Attrition among the personnel who were deep into our illegal affairs isn't too bad yet," Sato explained. "Though we've lost people even there. But our larger support structure? The workers, technicians, secretaries? The ones who kept the bigger picture running, without realizing what was going on behind the scenes?" Rather than say it himself, the man offered Nagai a printed report.
Nagai flipped through it, and his face went pale. "This can't be right..." he breathed. "This many of our employees throwing away their livelihood? All the money we were paying them? All because some tuxedo-wearing dandy fed them a speech?"
"That's just the preliminary report, sir," said Sato. "We still don't have the full picture, especially not from all our hidden shell corporations. It seems Pegasus knew about them somehow, and exposed those connections to the dreamers. He was telling those employees who they really worked for... and telling law enforcement about those connections as well."
It felt to Nagai as though he were seconds away from vomiting. He stumbled over to his closet, not even taking time to change out of his sleeping clothes. He simply threw a jacket over himself to give some semblance of presentability, then burst headlong out into the hallway at a run. I need to talk to Tanizaki! he thought. We need to... to... to do something!
He soon reached the elevator, where he punched in his security code with unnecessary force. The lift accelerated into motion, leaving Nagai nothing to do but fret until the doors opened again. Running out into the penthouse office, he found Tanizaki standing with his hands clasped behind his back, watching a hastily-assembled bank of monitors that were tuned to local television channels.
The scenes displayed brought Nagai up short. Many of the news broadcasts showed recordings of important government buildings; the National Diet, the Prime Minister's residence, the Ministry of Defense. But today, the streets surrounding each of them were packed solid by an ocean of humanity. He couldn't even see the full extent from the angles of the cameras. Some of the protestors had makeshift signs, while others were simply shouting, chanting. Nagai froze, dumbstruck at just how many people their foes had managed to mobilize, and how quickly.
Tanizaki glanced back over his shoulder. "Mr. Nagai," he said. "So good of you to finally show up."
"What's going on, Tanizaki?" blurted out Nagai, forgetting decorum in the moment. "Sato told me that Pegasus is exposing all our secrets through the damned dream. How does he know so much?"
"I expect that he learned it from Sailor Mercury," Tanizaki replied, his level voice betraying none of the panic that filled Nagai's. "Most likely she obtained the information during her attack on our computer systems."
Nagai began to pace back and forth, wracking his brain for a counter-move. "This is a disaster. They have who knows how much dirt on us, and they can communicate it to anyone in the world in a way we can't interfere with!"
"Calm yourself." A note of annoyance worked its way into Tanizaki's tone. "The situation is... troubling, but panic will only harm our chances. True, their ability to make a direct, personal appeal on such a wide scale was outside my expectations. But we might still regain some degree of control over the narrative if we can once again become the only voice the public hears."
"But how?" Nagai demanded. "No matter how we spin what they're doing, we won't be able to stop Pegasus from giving people his version."
"Then I suppose Pegasus will have to die," was Tanizaki's response. "Have Unit Zero report to me. I have a new task for her."
Over in Juuban, in the nondescript office complex built around the Dark Kingdom portal, Sailor Pluto watched a television set much smaller than Tanizaki's bank of monitors. It told her much the same story, however. Small Lady's plan was working.
Michiru and Haruka also sat around the television, watching the video of the immense protests. Ami sat at a table behind them, still typing away at her computer, searching the vast quantities of data she had stolen, looking for yet more information they could use. Ironically, for all that their plan depended on sleep and dreams, it was clear that she herself had been getting precious little of either.
Next to her was Ranma, while Helios sat opposite her, holding hands with Chibi-Usa. He had temporarily manifested in the waking world once again, at Small Lady's request. "This is a strong beginning," said the guardian of dreams. "But how should we follow up on it? When tonight comes, will you want to address Japan as a whole again?"
"We ought to give an update, even if it's not as long as last night's speech," suggested Michiru. "It will help keep everyone's enthusiasm up, and remind them of how urgent this is."
"Agreed," said Sailor Pluto. "But Helios' personal conversations with the individual dreamers will likely be just as important. Keep trying to convince Tanizaki's remaining followers to abandon his cause. The more we can erode his power base, the less damage he will be able to do."
Ami looked up from her computer. "What about Tanizaki himself?" she asked. "Have you tried talking to him in his dreams? Surely if we back him far enough into a corner he'll reach a point where he would be willing to surrender peacefully."
At that, Ranma let out a bark of laughter. "Don't count on it," he said. "I'll bet you anything he fights to the very end, and goes down swinging. That kind of guy'd rather die than give up."
"Either way, it does not matter," Helios told them. "Tanizaki's dream-self has not appeared in Elysion, so I cannot negotiate with him that way."
Chibi-Usa's face scrunched up in puzzlement. "You mean he's been staying awake since before you started talking to people?"
"No, you don't understand," Helios said. "It's not just that I haven't seen him in Elysion in the past few days. The description you gave me of the man... his name, his age, his character... I don't recognize him. At all. It's not that Tanizaki isn't sleeping. It's that Tanizaki doesn't sleep."
Haruka frowned. "That makes no sense. How could he do something like that?" She turned to Ranma. "Could it be one of his martial arts techniques?"
"Not one I ever heard of." Ranma shook his head. "Sounds more like something he had his science people or his magic people do to him. You should have seen what he showed me when I was in his skyscraper the first time—he was storing all kinds of enchanted crap and super serums and other stuff. And if he found something that would give him more hours in a day to work on all his plans? Something that would let him surpass one of his limits? Yeah, he'd use it in a heartbeat."
Sailor Pluto turned to regard Ranma, considering his words. "You seem to have an incisive grasp of our enemy's perspective," she said. "This is not the first time you've displayed it, either. Tell me... what do you think his next move will be?"
"Attack," said Ranma without hesitation. "Something big, something to bring the momentum back onto his side. You back a guy like him into a corner? That won't make him want to surrender. It just means he has less to lose for his next gamble. Don't kid yourselves. He'd burn down the whole world if it gave him a shot at coming out on top when it was over."
"Then we'll just have to stop him before he can do it," said Chibi-Usa, her voice firm. She gave Helios' hand a squeeze. "And we will."
Hotaru watched, fascinated, as Shampoo and Akane sparred. The two young women fought back and forth along the street outside the office building, launching and deflecting attacks with breathtaking rapidity. If Hotaru were transformed she would have been able to track their movements far better, but watching it in this state helped drive home to her just how amazing it was.
Shampoo kept up a fierce offensive, using twisting, snake-like strikes. Akane weathered the attack, then eventually saw an opening and dove in to try for a clench, grabbing hold of her rival and unleashing a series of knee and elbow strikes while keeping her head tucked low. The two of them whirled around each other, locked tight as each strained against her opponent, exchanging close-range blows.
The contest of physicality continued, but it was clear that Akane was getting the worst of it. She tried to adjust her position, but that gave Shampoo the chance to shove her away, leaving her off-balance. The Chinese girl followed that up by driving a kick right to Akane's center of mass, lifting her off her feet and sending her tumbling along the pavement.
By the time Akane rolled back into a sitting position, Shampoo was already standing over her, looking down with a small smirk. "Is still one hundred years too soon for Akane to beat Shampoo by matching strength," she said, as she extended a hand down to help her rival to her feet.
"Is there anything it's not too soon for me to try?" asked Akane dryly, while taking Shampoo's hand. As Shampoo pulled Akane back to her feet, Hotaru hurried over to the two of them.
"That was incredible!" she exclaimed, as the two of them turned to look at her. "The way you fight. And you don't even need any magic to do it."
Akane walked over to pick up a water bottle, taking a long drink before shrugging. "It's just practice, mostly. Anyone can learn to do it... if they've been training since the day they could walk."
"Akane teachers wait that long before start training?" asked Shampoo, with a teasing smile. "No wonder Akane is behind." Akane responded to that by sticking out her tongue, at which Shampoo laughed.
"I see..." Hotaru said, mulling this over. After a few more seconds, she spoke up again. "Do you think... you could teach me any of it someday?" she asked. Then she raised her hands, waving them in front of her. "Not that I think I'll be anything like how strong you are just with that! I just... would like to understand a little more what it's like for you."
The request caused Shampoo and Akane to raise their eyebrows in surprise. They glanced at each other, and then Shampoo spoke. "Sailor girl want understand what is like for martial artists?" she asked, a mischievous twinkle in her eye. "Or want understand what is like for lost boy specifically?"
Hotaru could feel the burning heat rise to her face, and she began to study her feet. "Is it that obvious?" she asked in a small, mortified voice.
"Only to people with eyes," Akane reassured her, good-natured teasing in her tone. "But why ask us? You could ask Ryouga to teach you some things himself, and it might help you get closer to him."
"I don't know," Hotaru answered, twisting the toe of her shoe on the pavement beneath her. "It was an idea I had just now. I didn't really think it through. I just... really want to understand him better. The way he lives. The things that are important to him. There's so much I don't know. But I want to learn."
When Akane spoke again, there was an impressed note in her voice. "You really do love him, don't you?"
The question caught Hotaru off-guard. In that moment, she realized with a start that she had never actually said it out loud, and certainly not to Ryouga. I ought to give him an answer, she thought, even though the prospect was slightly terrifying to her. So far he's been the one who's been making all the romantic gestures. I need to tell him that I feel the same way.
But at least she could start with this. She looked up, right into Akane's eyes, and nodded emphatically. "I do love him," she said. "He's so brave and noble. And kind—even to people who were trying to hurt him. Even to people who did hurt him." She still cringed when she thought back to how badly she'd injured him in their fight. But he'd turned right around and saved her from the grey creatures, then saved her and her father from the torture of those soldiers.
Hotaru could feel herself blushing again, but she found that she didn't care. Even if this was scary, even if this was beyond her experience, even if she had to fumble her way though, she didn't care.
She loved Ryouga, and she wasn't going to let fear stand in the way of that.
Grumbling under his breath, Ryouga wandered from room to room. Up until about two hours ago he had been in the Dark Kingdom, putting himself through a round of grueling training for whatever Tanizaki might throw at them next. Ranma had asked one of the Sailor Senshi—Hino Rei, the one who turned into Sailor Mars—to keep an eye on him.
The girl had been nice enough... but in retrospect, it was clear that she hadn't truly grasped the full extent of how bad Ryouga's sense of direction truly was, nor how closely he needed to be watched. At one point he'd needed to use the bathroom, and while she had led him to the men's room in one of Metzger's old buildings, she had waited at the door instead of following him in.
That had been a mistake. Ryouga was pretty sure he wasn't in the bathroom anymore, but however he had exited, it hadn't been the way he'd come in. Maybe those Bakusai Tenketsu tunnels he'd eventually resorted to had been a bad idea. He'd been getting pretty desperate by then, and they always seemed so right in the moment, but...
At any rate, he was lost. He could curse himself all he wanted, but that wouldn't change the grim reality. Wherever he was, he had to find his way back somehow. He studied his surroundings in a futile effort to make some sense out of them. Was he in Kobe? Or maybe Fukuoka? And if he was, then how far was that from the Dark Kingdom?
But then he heard something that interrupted his thoughts, sending a sudden surge of joy running through him. It was faint and muffled, but he could hear a voice. Hotaru's voice!
He increased his speed, hurrying in what he hoped was the direction he'd heard her, trying his best to follow it like a beacon. He didn't know whether he'd be able to keep on course, but he put all the concentration he could muster into the attempt. Soon he came up to a door that looked to lead outside of whatever building he was in, and he began to open it. And as it opened, it allowed him to hear his first clear words from the conversation outside. Not Hotaru's voice anymore, though. Akane's.
"You really do love him, don't you?"
Ryouga froze, feeling like someone had punched him in the stomach, his thoughts grinding to a halt. Then, before he could even finish processing that, he heard Hotaru's response. "I do love him," she said. "He's so brave and noble. And kind—even to people who were trying to hurt him. Even to people who did hurt him."
Too late, his brain finally caught up and he snatched his hand back from the door like it was a hot iron, letting it fall closed again. But he could not unhear what he'd heard. Hotaru had someone that she was in love with. Deeply in love with, as the earnest adoration he'd heard in her voice had made achingly clear.
For a few long seconds, Ryouga simply stood there. Then, curling his right hand into a fist, he punched himself across the face, trying to snap himself out of it. Well what did you expect? he asked himself. You already made up your mind you weren't going to creep her out by saying anything to her. So why are you having such a hard time with this? Of course she'd have someone she cares about! Hell, as wonderful as she is, she probably has classmates at school lining up around the block to confess to her!
Yet despite his lecture, he couldn't get the memory of what he'd heard out of his head. In particular, the praise she'd given to whoever it was taunted him. Brave. Noble. Kind. It was all too easy to match those virtues to his own failures, all the times in his life he'd been cowardly, dishonorable, vicious. Just another reminder why someone like her was beyond the reach of someone like him. Even if this person she liked hadn't been in the picture.
But even though he knew all that—and even though he knew it was petty—he couldn't help but feel a flash of bitterness toward the unnamed young man Hotaru had been talking about. Bastard... he thought. I bet he doesn't even appreciate just how lucky he is.
At her master's summons, Unit Zero walked into the laboratory room. It was a familiar one; her master's scientists had used it to work on her many times as they were fine-tuning her body in preparation for her role. But that didn't seem to be why he had called her here today. There was only one scientist this time, a man unfamiliar to her. She looked at her master questioningly.
"I have a task for you," Tanizaki said. "One of the utmost importance."
She couldn't imagine what sort of order it would be, but she listened with all her attention. She had failed in her last task, and the shame and guilt still gnawed at her, as did the memories of the punishment her failure had earned. No matter what her master asked of her, she wouldn't—couldn't—fail him again!
"We are about to put you to sleep using a mix of drugs designed to encourage lucid dreaming," continued Tanizaki. "Your psyche will travel to the land of dreams, where you must locate and destroy the guardian of that place, the entity known as Pegasus."
The scientist standing next to her master held up a hypodermic needle, then gestured to the surgical bed in the center of the room. "I'll need you to lie down there, and relax."
Unit Zero obeyed, walking over to the bed and reclining there. Meanwhile, Tanizaki continued to speak. "The drugs will hopefully allow you to manifest there with some degree of awareness, but the entity you hunt will doubtless be able to overpower their effects if you give him the chance. You must use the Silver Crystal to defend yourself, as well as to locate and isolate your target."
That sounded complicated, but Unit Zero trusted the crystal to enforce the general commands she gave it. That was her best hope, at any rate. Taking a deep breath, she held the Silver Crystal between her hands, just over her heart. It began to glow, a soft white light suffusing her entire body in preparation for what she was about to undertake.
Next, the scientist walked over and injected the needle into the side of her neck. As the drugs began to take effect, she closed her eyes, preparing herself. Whatever the odds, she had to make up for ruining her master's plans.
Whatever the odds, she had to make him happy with her again.
"Did you enjoy your time in the mortal realm, little brother?"
Helios looked over at Melinoe, as the two of them stood in the verdant fields of Elysion. He had returned from his conference with Ranma and the Sailor Senshi to find his sister waiting for him. "I did," he answered her, while wondering what she had been up to in his absence. When incarnated in the physical world he couldn't keep a direct eye on her, which was even more dangerous now that repeated use of the Golden Crystal had weakened her bonds. "We were able to work out the details of the next stage of the plan."
"Do you really believe that this plan of yours will work?" Melinoe pressed him. "That this mortal rabble you've gathered will be able to help against the caliber of foes you face?"
"On their own, perhaps not," answered Helios. "But they can press our foes in ways we cannot. In fact, I believe that their aid will be—"
But then Helios broke off, both he and Melinoe starting as they sensed a new power enter Elysion. It was immense, so similar to Sailor Moon's power, and yet so very different. There was no question who the intruder was.
Before Helios could attempt anything, white energy wracked his body, causing him to scream in pain. Then everything twisted around him, as he was forcibly wrenched out of every single dream in which he had been manifested.
When his vision cleared, he found himself kneeling in a single, barren dreamscape—one not of his own creation. A hot, desolate wasteland that stretched off to the horizon in every direction. He could also sense that this dream had been blocked off by magic from the rest of Elysion. No getting in or out.
And there, standing in front of him, clad in her black leotard, was the clone. She held the Silver Crystal in one hand, already blazing bright. She had no doubt commanded it to create this place, this prison in which they would do battle. A sense of dread began to creep into Helios' soul. Did he have any kind of chance against such power?
"Wait, please!" he called out, raising his hands. "Please, do not do this. We do not want to fight you. If you would just listen to us, we can..." But he faltered, and could not bring himself to complete the promise. They could... what? To save Sailor Moon they needed her death. What reassurance could he give this child that wouldn't be an outright lie?
Before he could come up with an answer, the clone raised her hand, aiming it directly at him as blinding white energy gathered in her palm. The attack was only a split-second away from release, and Helios knew he couldn't survive a blast of that power.
Instead, he slammed both his palms down into the ground of the dream. As he did, the earth where the clone was standing exploded up into a tall pillar with violent force. It flung the clone high into the air and sent her shot wide, the beam burning through the air and up into the sky.
She's incredibly powerful, but she has no experience fighting in this realm, Helios thought. She must have told the Silver Crystal to bring me here and prevent me from escaping, but she didn't have anything in place to keep me from manipulating the fabric of the dream itself. A novice mistake.
The clone flailed through the air along the trajectory that the pillar had launched her. But she soon regained her composure, using her levitation to right herself at a high altitude. Helios broke into a run, darting across the ground toward her. As he ran, his body seemed to split into a dozen different identical figures, each one veering off along a different course that still converged on his opponent. All but one were illusions, simple dream figments dancing under Helios' control, but he doubted that the clone knew how to tell the difference.
His bet paid off. The clone chose her targets blindly, hurling down a blazing white beam that carved through the landscape, sending rocks and dirt flying as she swung it back and forth. She vaporized one image after another, destroying four of them before Helios could respond.
As he ran, Helios and his images swung their hands upward, and thick vines erupted from the barren ground, arcing toward the clone from every angle as though to encircle her. She flew through the air, diving and twisting around their swings, then released pulsating energy beams from both hands and spun around, the rotating lances of magic ripping through the vines and sending their remains tumbling lifelessly away.
I have to keep her off-balance, or I'm done for! Helios thought. Manipulating the dream was his best chance, and he decided to dispense with any subtlety. He raised his hands, then clenched them into fists and swung them back down.
And with that, the meteors began to fall.
Enormous rocks rained down from the sky by the score, blazing with fire as they plummeted earthward. The clone dodged back and forth, in a frantic flight pattern, slipping between the criss-crossing barrage. When the meteors hit the ground it was with cataclysmic impacts that shook the dream, each one like standing at the heart of a nuclear blast.
In truth, this "attack" was just ephemeral dreamstuff; unlike a direct magic attack, it could do no permanent harm to a dreamer. Helios stood within the apocalyptic imagery, his white robes billowing around him, but himself entirely unhurt. The clone, however, did not see through this bluff either, and though the roiling mushroom clouds hid her from sight, Helios could sense her dodging as though the meteors were as dangerous as they seemed.
This is my chance! Helios thought. He allowed the swirling clouds of ash to part a little, giving the clone a glimpse of one of his remaining duplicates far below. She jumped at the bait with simple-minded eagerness, gathering power to her palm for yet another blast. Then, once she had done so, she hurled it downward.
And right at that moment—exactly when she had committed herself to her attack—the real Helios burst up through the cloud behind her. Not in his human form, but as Pegasus. His wings shredded the ash shroud as they propelled the large horse high above his foe, his horn crackling with yellow energy.
Please, Golden Crystal! he begged in desperation. I know it's not my place to wield you as a weapon myself... but just this once! To protect Chibi-Usa, to protect everyone, I need your power!
In that instant, he reached out to all the dreamers currently in Elysion, called on all their hope and determination, their beautiful dreams that they were even now pursuing. He summoned it all... and unleashed it down from his horn in a torrent of golden magic.
The clone, right in the middle of her own attack, was caught off-guard. The blast slammed into her from above, driving her earthward like a falling star, accumulating speed with every second. When the beam finally slammed her into the ground, the resulting detonation of magical power was like a second sun come to rest on the earth, blasting away the clouds of ash hovering in the air.
Even then, Helios did not relent. He continued his attack, cramming every last bit of force he could summon into the beam. The resulting shockwaves washed across the breadth of the lifeless plain. And still he poured on more power.
Soon, spatial distortions began to form, cracks appearing in the very air. The fabric of the dream itself was warping and buckling under his attack, ravaged by a level of magic it could not contain. And still he poured on more power.
But even as the beam hammered down with devastating force, Helios sensed something. Far, far below, right at the heart of the blazing impact point, the clone was bracing herself. Planting one hand on the ground. Then the other. Then pushing up, straining against the downpour of annihilation until, impossibly, she stood under the assault, the Silver Crystal blazing in her grasp.
No! Helios thought, dismayed. Even this isn't enough? Then, before Helios had time to think of anything else, the clone crouched and launched herself skyward, plowing through his attack to rocket straight at him.
The flying unicorn broke off his ineffective attack and tried to dodge, but she was on him too fast. She grabbed him by the neck in a vise-like grip, then the world spun around him with vertigo-inducing speed as she swung him overhead, then went into an all-out dive. The two of them plummeted earthward in twin blurs of white and black, with him held beneath her. When he hit, it was with bone-cracking force, drawing an agonized scream from him.
The clone straddled his broken form, panting for breath. Her black leotard was tattered from enduring his blast, and she did look injured, but not enough to take her down. Instead, she raised her hand high, white energy gathering there. Then she clenched her fist and swung it down in a mighty punch.
In desperation, Helios reverted to his human form. The sudden reduction in size allowed him to slip free of her grasp, rolling away so that her blow slammed into the earth instead of directly into his body. The energy she had collected detonated, the shockwave smashing into him and flinging him away. Ground and sky changed places as he spun through the air. Finally he crashed back down, sliding to a stop in a twisted, bleeding tangle.
The latest discharge of magic had degraded the dream even further, causing even more distortions to form. Slowly, painfully Helios lifted his head, only to see that the clone was gathering power for yet another beam of magic. This is the end... he thought in resignation. There's nothing more I can do. I'm sorry, Chibi-Usa. I wasn't strong enough.
But just as the clone was about to fire, there was a flash of crimson magic from one of the nearby rips in the fabric of the dream, and Melinoe burst out of it, lunging at the clone from behind. The clone tried to spin and target the new threat, but before she could, Melinoe swung one of the chains that trailed behind her, winding it around her foe.
Then, her eyes flashing with fury, Melinoe wrenched with all her might, dragging both of them into another rip in the air, where they vanished in a second flash of red.
When the clone hit ground after her unexpected transit she found herself in a very different place from the desert dream, though it was no less barren. But where the wasteland had been hot and dry, this place had an unnatural chill, with white mist filling the air, restricting sight in every direction. Her attacker vanished back into the mists moments after their arrival, leaving Unit Zero alone in the clammy silence.
She whirled back and forth, straining her eyes to find some sign of her foe. Second after second went by, but nothing else disturbed the sterile emptiness. The lack of response unnerved the clone more than any overt threat. There was something about this place, something in the very air that seemed to slip subtle dread into her very being.
Then, just when she was about to start firing into the mist blindly, she caught sight of movement out in front of her. A figure approaching her through the fog. Her hand shot up, power gathering there for a magic blast. But the instant before she released it, the figure drew close enough that its features could be seen. It was Tanizaki.
Unit Zero's eyes went wide. She checked her attack, frantically lowering her hand. What was her master doing here? He gave no indication, only fixed her with a disapproving glare. She flinched and looked away, fidgeting, her heart hammering in her chest as she hoped against hope that accidentally aiming at him wouldn't make him angry with her.
After a long, drawn-out silence, Tanizaki spoke. "Such a disappointment," he spat, venom in his tone. "After all I gave you, all I invested in you, this is how you repay me? With failure after failure? You let Sailor Moon escape alive, you couldn't even kill any of her allies... and now your mission to kill Pegasus ends the same way? How could my efforts have produced a creature so utterly worthless?"
The clone quailed under his words. He continued to speak, walking closer all the while. "This whole experiment was a mistake. I ought to activate your pain implant... and leave it on, for the rest of your miserable life. It would be a better fate than you deserve."
The clone shook her head from side to side, absolutely terrified. By now he was right in front of her, their faces only inches apart. Then his gaze dropped to look at the Silver Crystal, and his tone became abruptly thoughtful. "No," he said at last. "No, there's something you fear even more than the pain, isn't there? You fear the emptiness. More than anything else, you fear going back to the way you used to be, before you stole that little trinket from its rightful owner."
By now Unit Zero was nearly hyperventilating, desperate to think of something—anything—that might convince her master to give her another chance. But her childlike intellect could not come up with a way to do it as panic clouded her thoughts. Tanizaki, for his part, pointed behind her. "That being the case," he said. "I will not do anything to you. Instead, I will leave your punishment... to her."
Slowly, Unit Zero turned around, somehow knowing what she would see. Standing there was a figure identical to her, except that this girl was clad in the full regalia of Sailor Moon. Nor did this Sailor Moon have any of the hesitation or doubt that had been present in their initial clash. This Sailor Moon stalked toward her with inexorable purpose, righteous fury flashing in her eyes.
"Unforgivable," Sailor Moon bit out as she advanced on her clone. "You actually thought that you could steal my birthright? That something cooked up in a mortal's test tube could win against the true heir to the Silver Millennium?"
The clone stumbled backward, sobbing in fright, while her double continued to speak. "You may have briefly gained the upper hand by playing on my softer side, but we both know how this will end. Only one of us can survive, and there is no world in which a cheap copy like you can surpass the original."
By now, unreasoning terror had taken full hold of Unit Zero. Her master had abandoned her, and now she was faced with Sailor Moon again, this time coming at her without a shred of mercy. Sailor Moon surged forward, her hand clamping around the clone's neck and hoisting her into the air. "So know this, down to the depths of your soul," Sailor Moon intoned, her eyes flashing red as she spoke. "I am coming for you. And when I do, you will die. You will die, empty and alone, like the worthless little fake that you are!"
As Sailor Moon spoke, there was a sudden flash of crimson light around her hand, and the clone screamed as she felt a sudden, violent force sweep over her. The next thing she knew, she was back in the laboratory in Tanizaki's skyscraper, surging up off the bed with a scream of horror. Her chest heaved as she sucked in breath after ragged breath, while tears streamed down her face.
Tanizaki regarded her, his expression grim. Finally, as her breathing began to slow and she regained some semblance of composure, he spoke. "I assume that you did not succeed in eliminating Pegasus?"
Unit Zero looked down into her lap, her hands twisting there, then shook her head from side to side. Tanizaki exhaled. "I see," he said. "Well, it was a gamble to begin with. It seems that this is a hurdle we cannot cross yet, even with the element of surprise on our side. Perhaps once you have sole control over the Silver Crystal, we will try once more."
His words sent a flash of relief running through the clone. Even now she was having a hard time understanding exactly what had happened, but she knew she didn't want to go back there, didn't want to fight in that awful place again.
"Still..." Tanizaki continued. "While I don't want to do this, I cannot ignore that you did fail in your task. You know the punishment you deserve for that, don't you?"
The clone's stomach twisted with the sickening feeling of despair, but she still nodded, giving the response Tanizaki's training had drilled into the core of her very being. Seeing that, Tanizaki spoke the initiation sequence. "Epsilon Omega Four One Three."
And with that her pain implant activated, causing Unit Zero's agonized screams to echo through the laboratory.
Alone in the mist-shrouded nightmare realm, Melinoe stood, breathing heavily from the exertion she had just made. She waited there for some time, until she had caught her breath and regained her full composure. Then, with a single step forward, she traversed from that dream to the rapidly-unraveling dream where Helios was.
He had propped himself up into a sitting position now, but he was still in obvious pain. A fresh flash of rage blazed in Melinoe at the sight, rage at the wretched creature who had dared harm her little brother.
"What happened?" he asked as Melione approached. "Is she—?"
"Gone," Melinoe informed him. "I managed to expel her from Elysion."
Her brother's expression became perplexed. "But how did you overcome the Silver Crystal's defenses? They were too powerful for me to even—" Then he paused, realization sinking in. "You destroyed her will to resist first. Attacked her with her greatest fears."
His face fell as he spoke. Melinoe, for her part, smiled a rueful smile at her brother's concern. He was so tender-hearted that he was pained by even the thought of an enemy suffering like that, even though that enemy had deserved a thousand times worse fate for what she had done to him. Oh Helios, she thought. How much more pain do you intend to put yourself through for the sake of these mortals of yours?
Even so, she was forced to admit that some of those mortals might be necessary after all. She had not anticipated the fake's assault, had not anticipated that this "Tanizaki" would dare to strike at Elysion directly. And she certainly had not anticipated that his fake would come as close to success as she had.
As she pondered this, she reached out with her magic, pouring all the strength she could muster into traps and defenses of great potency around the metaphysical perimeter of Elysion. She had underestimated this foe, but she would not be caught off-guard again. Should the fake return, this magic would attempt to manifest her in the nightmare realm, where she would be vulnerable to the same method of attack that had defeated her this time.
The power flowed easily to her, surprising her by how unimpeded it was. Her brother must have used the Golden Crystal heavily in his battle, weakening her bonds even further, allowing her to use more of her true might. But the fake would be growing in power as well, as she acclimated to the stolen crystal. Even with her chains further loosened, Melinoe doubted she could keep up forever. Worse, if the true Sailor Moon were to die and Tanizaki's creature were to gain uncontested control of the Silver Crystal, that would spell certain doom for them all.
Melinoe's lip twisted, as she realized that she truly would have to rely on Helios' humans to deal with the threat. She couldn't attack Tanizaki directly, but they could. And they would need to. Because until they stopped him, not even Elysion would be safe.
Later that night, nearly into morning, Unit Zero stumbled back to her cell, escorted by two guards. Tired, beaten, terrified and tortured, the clone barely made it to the cot at the far end of the room before collapsing onto it.
The guards left soon after. Unit Zero buried her face into her pillow, utterly exhausted. All she wanted to do was rest, to find what little respite she could in the solace of sleep. Sleep... in which she would dream.
Dreams in which her enemies would be waiting for her again.
With a wordless cry, she hurled herself off of her cot, stumbling away until her back slammed into the far wall and she slid down it. Her hands trembled as she panted for breath, memories of her earlier terror echoing within her.
She couldn't sleep. No matter what, she couldn't let herself sleep!
The silent battle between her fear and her exhaustion ground on and on and on, minute after endless minute. She stared at the blank wall in front of her as her fingers gripped her knees. She couldn't tell how long it lasted, but eventually it was broken by someone speaking. "Hello?"
Unit Zero's blood ran cold. She knew that voice. Raising her head, she saw that Sailor Moon had appeared before her yet again, this time in her white-dressed, semi-transparent form. The clone scrambled away, to the farthest corner of the room she could manage. Her bloodshot eyes were wide, as the memory of their most recent confrontation replayed through her mind.
"Unforgivable. You actually thought that you could steal my birthright? That something cooked up in a mortal's test tube could win against the true heir to the Silver Millennium?"
"What's wrong?" asked Sailor Moon, a frown crossing her face. "Did Tanizaki do something to you?"
"You may have briefly gained the upper hand by playing on my softer side, but we both know how this will end. Only one of us can survive, and there is no world in which a cheap copy like you can surpass the original."
The phantasmal figure took a few steps closer, but Unit Zero tensed up in reply, and she paused, confusion in her face. "Look, whatever it is, I want to help you," she said, and began to reach out her with her hand. "Just let me—"
"So know this, down to the depths of your soul. I am coming for you. And when I do, you will die. You will die, empty and alone, like the worthless little fake that you are!"
The clone screamed. A wordless, unhinged scream that shook the walls of her cell. In a burst of panic, she thrust out her palm toward Sailor Moon's astral projection. The air rippled with power, and the image shattered into a thousand pieces, which then vanished from sight.
Back in the celestial rotunda, Queen Serenity let out a short gasp as she saw her daughter's spirit hurled violently back into that realm, appearing in a trajectory that sent her crashing to the floor in a limp heap.
The queen rushed to Usagi's side, cradling the fallen girl's head in her lap. "Are you alright?" she asked. "What happened?"
"I... I don't know..." said Usagi weakly. She barely had the strength to look up and meet her mother's worried eyes. "She was... terrified of me. Way more than the last time I was there. When I tried to reach out to her... something in her just snapped. I... don't know what could have caused something like that. If I could just—"
"Shhh, shhh..." said Queen Serenity, stroking her daughter's hair lovingly. "You've done all you can for now. You have to let yourself recover from the damage you've taken, or you'll be no use to anyone. Rest, and you can face these challenges once you've regained some strength."
In Tanizaki's skyscraper, Unit Zero sat there in the silence, staring at the empty spot where her double had just been. Now that the danger was gone, the clone's panic had begun to recede. But in its place, it left a sickening suspicion that—somehow—she had just made a terrible mistake.
The young girl curled her knees to her chest in a fetal position, rocking back and forth in the corner as she fought to stay awake. Her eyes twitched left and right, searching for the enemies she knew were closing in on her. She didn't know how to fight them, but maybe her master had a plan.
So she pinned all her hopes on that. That despite all the times she had failed him, she could somehow, somehow prove herself useful enough to her master that he would save her.
The following morning, Tanizaki stood in his penthouse office, listening as Nagai related the latest status reports. If yesterday had been bad, today was even worse.
"...and twelve more National Diet members have issued statements against us in the past hour alone," the small, rodent-like man said. "I've had our various proxies remind them of all the bribes they'd been given, and all the incriminating evidence we have on them, but it doesn't seem to be working. Even the dirt we do have pales in comparison to this level of public pressure. Especially if they realize that with the data the Sailor Senshi stole, they likely have access to the exact same dirt that we do."
"What about our grip on the news media?" asked Tanizaki.
"Also deteriorating," Nagai said. "Several news stations have gone rogue; they're flat-out refusing to follow any orders from our shell corporations anymore, and they're reporting on our attempts to influence them. We could try to forcibly shut them down, but that may do more harm than good at this point."
Tanizaki let out a long breath of vexation. "Let's move on to allies that the Sailor Senshi aren't capable of persuading over to their side, then," he said. "How is the Synth production coming?"
"Our remaining scientists are growing replacements as quickly as possible, and we've already more than replenished our earlier forces," said Nagai, though he did not look any happier about this report. "However, we've come up against a... limitation. Specifically, the orange nutrient fluid that the tanks use. It's produced by a specialized factory that Metzger set up in Yokohama... and last night, a group of the workers employed there completely wrecked the equipment. Once we use up all the fluid in our current stores—which we estimate will happen sometime today at the rate we're going through it—we won't be able to make any more Synths for a month. At least."
"Our corporate infrastructure won't last even that long at the rate we're bleeding support," said Tanizaki, the words coming out cold and clinical. He could feel the raging fury burning inside of him at the undignified turnabout they had subjected him to, but he refused to let it show. He could not afford to.
Instead, he focused on strategy. "At this point, the long game is a lost cause. Our only remaining course of action is to strike hard and fast—with everything we have—before they can erode our position any further. If we can just kill Sailor Moon, then everything else will fall into place. Unit Zero will be able to rewrite the world, and no one will remember this even happened."
"Can we pull it off?" asked Nagai. He didn't look confident.
"There is no other option," was Tanizaki's level response. "We will attack tomorrow. By then, Zhang should have recovered enough to participate. We will throw every Synth we can muster at them, as well as any remaining weapons you can scrounge from Metzger's old prototypes. Hold nothing back."
Then Tanizaki paused, his expression becoming thoughtful. "Also... begin the procedure for carefully moving the deep-freeze chamber down in sub-level thirty-two. I want it ready to be transported into the section of the city where our enemies have taken refuge."
Nagai's face went pale. "You're... you're going to release that thing? Right into the middle of Tokyo?"
"I find it fitting," was Tanizaki's mild reply. "From its very birth all those millennia ago, the Wyrmspawn's nature was that of a weapon created specifically to kill Sailor Senshi. It seems only fair that we give it one last chance to do so."
The young man ran headlong through the city streets, panting for breath as the city burned around him.
All around him, carnage reigned supreme, as countless other people ran for their lives, trampling each other in their frenzied haste to escape. Screams of terror filled the air, mingled with the sounds of battle and destruction. He ran through the scorching heat, until he tripped, tumbling forward to land painfully.
He looked up, just in time to see a single figure plummet down through the air, landing in a crouch further down the road with a force that cratered the street. At its arrival, the crowd turned and ran in the opposite direction, many of them stomping on the young man's fallen body as they tried to get away.
The young man couldn't make out many details of the thing through the crowd and the smoke and the distortion from the heat shimmers, but he could see that it was a monster. Shaped like a man, but looming over a head taller than any human the boy had ever seen, with an imposing, muscular build. From its back sprouted an enormous pair of draconic wings. The boy detected hints of black scales covering its body, though much of it was obscured by the bloodstains from its massacre.
Somehow fighting back to his feet, the young man turned and fled in the opposite direction along with everyone else. But he had barely made any headway when there was the sound of a huge explosion, and then a split-second later he was incinerated by a wall of flame rushing up from behind.
With a scream, Urawa Ryo awoke, thrashing back and forth in his makeshift bed. For several seconds memories of his vision intermingled with the groggy realities filtering in from the waking world. Finally he centered himself, calming down bit by bit, as he took in his surroundings. He was in the Dark Kingdom, in one of the medical areas that Metzger's scientists had used.
And he was alive.
"Sir!" Karkala was sitting in the room as well, the red-and-pink youma evidently keeping vigil over him. Seeing him awake, she sprang to her feet, her expression joyful. "Sir, you're back!"
"I..." Ryo rubbed his eyes trying to piece together what this meant. Karkala was here, without a guard and with no explosive collar either. Which meant... "We won?"
The youma nodded emphatically. "You were in a coma for the past few days because of how much blood you lost, but we kicked Tanizaki's humans out of the Dark Kingdom completely! And since then, the Sailor Senshi have gotten the rest of Japan to turn on him. From what I've heard, the ordinary humans might even beat him without us having to lift a finger ourselves!"
"No." The memory of his vision was still far too vivid for him to entertain such hopes. He shook his head, suppressing a shudder. "No, there's something worse coming. Much worse. I have to warn the others right away."
A tense silence filled the conference room after Ryo finished describing the future he had seen. Most of the Sailor Senshi were there, with Ami sitting next to Ryo and listening with a worried expression. Only Chibi-Usa was missing; she was filling in for her father by channeling her energy into Sailor Moon, allowing him to attend the meeting this time. Ranma was there as well, along with Akane, Shampoo, Ukyo and Ryouga.
Ranma could see concern in all their faces, and he could understand the feeling. Michiru was the first to speak. "So Tanizaki still has a monster like that in reserve?" she asked. "I wonder why he didn't use it when we attacked his headquarters?"
"Because he can't control it," Ranma said. "I'm pretty sure I know what it was you saw, and if I'm right, it woulda been just as likely to go after him as it would us. Tanizaki showed it to me when he was taking me on the tour of his skyscraper. It's something he dug out of the ground, something he called the 'Wyrmspawn'. From what he says, it's completely immune to magic, and it'll kill anything and everything it sees. Which means all he can do is turn it loose as close to us as he can, and hope for the best."
Ranma noticed that Sailor Pluto went pale as he named the creature. "Then if Mr. Urawa's vision is true, we face a grave calamity," she said. "If a thing like that gets free in a populated area, the death toll will be catastrophic."
"You've seen it in action?" Ranma asked.
Sailor Pluto shook her head, her gaze distant. "Only the aftermath. But that was enough. It killed Sailor Moon's grandmother, along with more than half the Sailor Senshi of that era."
There was silence as the implications of that sunk in. Finally, Rei spoke. "Then that just means we have to take Tanizaki down before he can release it."
"How?" asked Ukyo. "We had to run for our lives the last time we tried to attack his headquarters, and that was with both Sailor Moon and Mousse there to help out! And now we have to beat him and his Sailor Moon clone so fast that they don't have time to wake this thing up?"
"What if we let him release it?" asked Haruka. "If he doesn't control who it attacks then we might be able to bait it into killing him and his clone for us."
"And then what?" asked Makoto. "Even if we did do that, that still leaves us with a monster on the loose that can kill thousands. And we don't have a plan to kill it."
Ranma smiled, the beginnings of a plan starting to form. "Who says we need to kill it?" he asked. "If we know Tanizaki's planning to release it against us, why not set a trap for it?"
The rest of the group turned toward him, curiosity in their expressions. "The whole reason Tanizaki was able to keep it locked up in the first place is 'cause even though it's really powerful, it's dumber than dirt," he explained. "If it can see or hear or sense something, it tries to kill it... but if it can't then it just sits there. That's how Tanizaki beat it. And if he can do it, so can we."
"An isolation chamber..." mused Ami, pondering the idea. "It would be a challenge to create something like that on such short notice... but it might be possible. Tanizaki's people left a great deal of technology behind in the Dark Kingdom base, and I can talk to the monsters about incorporating their knowledge as well."
"And the rest of us can start evacuating the area," added Hotaru. "We'll send everyone as far away from here as we can, so no one will get hurt in the fight."
"Unless anyone has a better idea for taking this thing out of commission?" asked Ranma. When no one else spoke up, he drove a fist into his palm. "Then that's what we'll do. Tanizaki wants to turn this thing loose on us? We'll just stick it right back in a can again."
Once they reached the decision, the Sailor Senshi and the martial artists wasted little time in getting to work. Ami disappeared through the Dark Kingdom portal, saying something about getting materials together. The others dispersed into the surrounding neighborhood, warning people to flee and requesting that they tell others.
It was easy to clear the area immediately surrounding the office building that held the Dark Kingdom portal; those were mostly commercial buildings, with few permanent residents. Further out, though, it became harder. Still, they soon had large masses of people packing the streets as they evacuated areas further and further from the site of the anticipated battle.
As the day wore on, they began to receive help from unexpected sources. First, reporters from TV news stations started to arrive, convinced by the dream speech to cover the Senshi side of the story. When they heard about the evacuation underway, they agreed to help spread the word.
Even beyond that, more and more people began to show up as well, offering their assistance. Police, fire departments, even the JSDF, all turning against Tanizaki as his corruption was exposed. They brought a professional eye to the evacuation effort, helping to organize it a bit more from the haphazard affair it had been up to that point.
They even received a few additional defenders as well, as the Kuno siblings arrived partway through the day. Tatewaki was eager to lend his assistance, and proclaimed so in the most bombastic of terms. Kodachi was more subdued, still evidently working through the sudden return of her memories and what that meant, but she was no less fervent in her promise to fight alongside them.
In the end, the day provided them a tremendous influx of support, even as it saw a tremendous outflow of people fleeing the area. Even so, the knowledge of what was coming hung over their efforts like a cloud, as they prepared themselves for what tomorrow would bring.
Eventually evening gave way to night, and Ranma headed back to their impromptu stronghold. They had evacuated an impressively huge area of the city for a single day's work, enough so that Ranma had begun to wonder if it wasn't a bit excessive. Ryo, however, had insisted, and the rest of them had gone along.
Upon returning, Ranma took a seat on the roof of the small office building, gazing off into the distance toward Shinjuku Ward. Toward Tanizaki. It wasn't yet his turn on watch, but even so he couldn't rest easy. He sat there, his senses on edge, waiting for any threat to reveal itself.
No minions of their enemy attacked, but as alert as he was, he sensed it immediately when someone else jumped up onto the roof behind him. He shifted, his lip twisting a little. He'd almost have preferred an attack.
"What's up, pop?" Ranma asked, without turning around.
"Nothing much," he heard Genma answer, though with the benefit of long, long experience he could hear the evasive note in his father's voice. There was a long, uncomfortable pause, before Genma finally continued. "Certainly is lot of preparation going on, though. Do you really think this... cage that Sailor Mercury is building will be able to stop the kind of monster they say is coming?"
"Who knows?" said Ranma. "Guess we'll find out."
"But... are you sure it's really necessary to face it head on like this?" Genma asked, affecting a tone of sagely musing. "If we just—"
"Just what?" Ranma demanded, finally getting to his feet and turning around to face Genma. He knew where this was going, and he didn't have the patience to play along "Just run away? Just let Tanizaki's monster run around free in Tokyo, killing people?"
"It's better than dying along with them!" Genma snapped back, his affected disposition starting to fray. "Have you heard what the Senshi are saying about this thing? How dangerous it is?"
"Yeah, Pluto told us the whole story in the meeting." Ranma crossed his arms. "Doesn't matter. We're going to beat it. My plan's going to work. I'll make it work!"
Ranma's gaze drilled into his father, who didn't meet his eyes.. Then Genma sighed, the will to argue draining out of him. He walked over to the edge of the roof, sitting down so that his legs hung over the edge as he stared out across the darkened city. "Did I ever tell you how I met the Master?" he asked, after a while. "The very first time?"
"What, the old freak? You never talk about him unless someone drags it out of you."
Genma grunted. "It was... over forty years ago, now." He shook his head, as though trying to come to grips himself with how long it had been. "Before I met your mother. It was just Soun and I, back then. Just two stupid boys on their first training trip. We heard about a tiny menace who was stealing underwear and harassing women everywhere he went. So I decided we ought to hunt him down. I suppose... I felt it was the right thing to do. Of course, we didn't stand a chance."
"Right. So you asked him to teach you instead."
"No," Genma said quietly. "We went back and trained even harder. Then we tried for a rematch. When that didn't work, we tried a third time. We kept trying and trying and trying to fight him. I thought for sure that if I just didn't give up I'd find the way to win, like the 'hero' I thought I was."
Then Genma shook his head. "It never happened. The real world doesn't work that way. All we ended up doing was piquing the Master's curiosity. On a whim, he decided that we would be his students. And that's when the hell truly began for us."
"He called it 'training', but he really just wanted our help with the very things we'd thought we were going to stop him from doing. If we refused, he would 'spar' with us instead. Before long I had given up all hope of beating him. I just wanted to escape. But by then it was too late. We couldn't get away from him. Eventually I had to accept that. There was nothing I could do. Giving in was the only way to survive. And I decided we were going to survive."
For the first time in the conversation, Genma looked his son right in the eye. "Don't make my mistake, Ranma," he said. "If I'd known my limits from the beginning, I could have avoided all of that. And this thing that's coming... I have a bad feeling about it. This is going to be a thousand times worse than the Master ever was. Some things you just can't win against."
The pained vulnerability Ranma could hear in Genma's voice shocked him. This wasn't the pompous posturing he was used to seeing. In that moment he saw Genma without any of the pretense, and he was taken aback by just how small and tired and empty his father looked.
"Maybe you're right," Ranma acknowledged at length. "There's no promises for any of this. You might be right that there are some things we can't beat. You might even be right that this thing is one of 'em. But you don't know for sure. And there's only one way to find out."
"And if you find out you can't, then you lose everything!" Genma snapped.
"Yeah," Ranma said unflinchingly. "That's the risk. But don't you think it'd be worth it? For the chance to stop Tanizaki from killing all those people?"
Ranma searched Genma's eyes as he made his plea, hoping against hope that what he said would get through. Because, for all that Genma had done over the years to build up the wall of anger that had formed between them, for all the betrayal Ranma had felt that Genma hadn't been there in the battle for the Dark Kingdom when Akane had died... Genma was still his father, the man who had raised him for sixteen years. A part of Ranma still wanted Genma to live up to his own grand words. To be the man he sometimes pretended to be. The man Ranma used to think he was.
For a long moment Genma hesitated, and in his face Ranma could see the conflicting emotions warring against each other. But in the end, it wasn't enough. "People die every day," Genma finally said. "You can't save them all, no matter what. And Tanizaki has no reason to come after us if we aren't helping his enemies. This isn't our fight, son."
"Sure it is," Ranma said. "A monster's coming. And it's a martial artist's duty to deal with monsters. You taught me that, pop."
With eyes red from lack of sleep, Ami looked over the results of her labors.
The tank itself had been scavenged from one of the chemical storage units and flushed. She had worked with the monsters and Sailor Pluto to inlay as many enchantments into the tank's walls as they could to cut off sound detection, scent detection, ki detection, soul detection, infrared detection, ultraviolet detection... everything they could think of. Magic might not be able to affect the creature directly, but hopefully it could prevent outside information from reaching it in the first place.
Then, once they had finished, she had turned her Mercury Computer's immense scanning power loose on the tank, testing the protections they had created. When it saw through them, she started working on ways to plug the holes she had found. Three times she had gone through that cycle, and by now the tank's wards were as strong as she knew how to make them. Even so, she still wracked her brain for something more she could check.
"It looks impressive. You've done a good job."
Ami looked behind her and saw that Ryo had entered the dimly-lit lab without her noticing. "Will it be good enough?" she asked.
"I... don't know," Ryo admitted. "If I could find more of the drugs Metzger was giving me to boost my mental sensitivity I might be able to see more. But since I woke up, my visions have been... sporadic. Fragmented. Hard to control. I think some of it might be withdrawal symptoms."
He frowned in concentration, as though he were trying to force his gift to give him the answers she sought. But then he broke off with a pained grimace, raising one hand to his forehead as he let out a soft hiss of aggravation.
"It's all right," Ami reassured him, rising to her feet and hurrying over to him. Reaching up hesitantly, she placed a hand on his shoulder. "I'm sure it will be fine."
They remained like that for a few moments before Ami lowered her head. "...I'm sorry, Ryo."
"What do you mean?" asked Ryo, perplexed. "You don't have anything to be sorry about."
"Yes I do!" Ami burst out, tears brimming in her tired eyes. "I wasn't there for you!"
"Metzger was torturing you for two years! And... and I never realized what really happened to you. If I'd just put the facts together, if I'd just figured it out, we could have—"
"Ami!" Tenderly, Ryo raised a hand to Ami's face, tilting her gaze up to look at him. "Ami, I let myself be captured because that was the best future I could find. It wasn't your fault! I made sure not to leave any clues that could start this battle before we were ready. And... even then you were there for me. Through all of it."
Blinking through tears, Ami gave him a puzzled look. "How...?"
"This moment." His voice breaking on the words, Ryo reached out and wrapped his arms around Ami, pulling her in close. He bowed his head down, resting his forehead against hers. "Whenever it was the darkest... Whenever I felt like I couldn't bear it anymore... I would search the future. All the different branches and possibilities I could see. I would find a future—no matter how unlikely—where I was with you again. And I would hang onto that vision with everything I had. You gave me the strength to go on."
The tears were now flowing freely down Ami's face. For what seemed like forever they stood there together, clinging to each other. Eventually, Ami broke the silence. "So..." she said, looking up at him with the faint ghost of an impish smile. "All those futures you hung onto. What exactly would happen in them?"
Ryo blushed. "Ah. Well, it... depended really. Visions from that far in the future are notoriously... I mean... I certainly wouldn't presume that it would happen the way I saw if you didn't—"
His words were cut off as Ami lunged toward him, pressing her lips against his. His response was immediate, pulling her in even tighter to himself. Her hands slid up behind him, gripping him by the hair as they kissed hungrily. She could feel his hands trembling as he held her, as though he were trying to reassure himself that it was finally real.
In the dark of night, two figures walked down the empty city streets. This area had long since been evacuated, so they had no company except the silence. Even so, both men glanced around anxiously, as though worried that someone might be watching.
Or perhaps, ashamed.
They made their way without conversation. It was only broken when they paused at a vacant intersection, and one of them spoke up. "Saotome... are you sure about this?"
Genma turned back to his oldest friend. He could see the hesitation written across Soun's face, the uncertainty. Soun had always been the more indecisive of the two, leaving Genma to make the tough decisions. Decisions like this one. "Of course I'm sure!" he replied, with a confidence and jocularity he didn't feel. "It's not like we'd make that much difference even if we stayed. Ranma... passed me up in strength years ago. So there's no reason for us to get ourselves killed for nothing, is there? A good training trip, though... that's just what we need! It'll be like old times."
But the words showed no sign of raising Soun's spirits. Rather, he only looked more troubled. "I... don't know if I can do this anymore, Saotome," he said, his voice quiet. "Running away. Even if I can't do much, maybe the little bit I can do will make a difference. Maybe I'll be able to be there for my daughters, the way I always should have been." He let out a long exhale. "Maybe if I do this... the nightmares will stop."
Genma didn't have to ask what nightmares his friend was talking about. He knew all too well. He told himself the things he saw in those dreams weren't real, couldn't be real, but he was still haunted by them. Nightmares of a time exactly like this, where he had run away. And the terrible cost that had been exacted from his son instead.
"I'm going back." There wasn't any special force behind the words, but somehow Soun seemed to stand a little taller as he said them. "I'm going back. And I'm going to do what I can."
Genma said nothing. A part of him was struggling to come to grips with this sudden show of determination from his friend. This wasn't how it was supposed to go. Soun always used to followed his lead, not rush off on his own in sudden acts of suicide. "Tendo..." he began. "Tendo, this is a bad idea. I know you're worried about your daughters, but if you'd just listen to—"
"No." Soun shook his head. "No, I can't listen to you, Saotome. Not this time. I know you can explain why I shouldn't do this, and... and I'm scared enough right now that I'd probably agree. But it would be another mistake that I could never take back. So I can't listen. I'm sorry."
As he spoke, he took one step backward, then another. Once he had finished speaking he turned, taking off at a run back in the direction of the building that housed the Dark Kingdom portal.
"Tendo..." Genma said. When it had no effect on his friend, he called out louder. "Tendo! Soun, come back!"
But instead of stopping, Soun only disappeared from view around a corner. Genma was left standing there, alone.
For a long time he simply stood there, staring off into the distance in the direction Soun had gone. Genma had decided, all those years ago, to do whatever it took to survive. Whether that meant casting off his principles. Or his dignity. Or, apparently, his oldest friend.
And he had done it. He had survived.
Had it always felt so empty?
Standing in the elevator as it descended past floor after floor of Tanizaki's skyscraper, Nagai tried to quell the growing apprehension in his stomach. Had he made the right choice? His employer still had a chance to win, of course, but it was nowhere near as certain as he had thought before the events of the past few days. So much now hinged on this one insane gamble, this all-out attack using all their remaining forces and a monster they had no way of controlling.
If it did end up killing Sailor Moon, everything would work out. But if their plan somehow failed, what would they have left to defend themselves? They would have nothing, and would be branded as the mass murderers who let loose a creature on Tokyo whose only purpose was unchecked massacre.
The nagging tendril of doubt twisted inside Nagai. Should I have taken Pegasus' offer? he asked himself. For a moment, he was seized with an urge to just run for his life. To abandon everything he was doing for Tanizaki and throw himself on the mercy of the Sailor Senshi, to warn them about what was coming so they wouldn't be caught unawares.
But then he shook his head, driving such thoughts away. No, he couldn't afford to be cowardly now. The kind of power he had only dreamed about was just within his reach. He had to press on. And if accomplishing that meant people had to die... well, that was just the way of the world.
If they didn't want to be stepped on, they should have gathered enough power to be the one doing the stepping. Like he had done.
A few seconds later the elevator door opened and Nagai stepped out onto one of the floor's dedicated to the skyscraper's medical wing. Waiting for him on the other side was the man who had requested this meeting: the head doctor in charge of Ekim's treatment.
"What is it?" Nagai demanded, crossing his arms in annoyance. "What was so urgent that it was worth interrupting my work on managing our PR situation?"
For some reason the doctor was not meeting Nagai's eyes. He fidgeted where he stood, his body giving little twitches with almost manic intensity. "There's... been a change in the patient's status," he said, the words coming out strangely erratic. "I needed to show it to someone of your... clearance."
Nagai frowned. "A development like that should have been reported to Mr. Tanizaki," he snapped. "Why involve me in something like this?"
"Please!" the doctor burst out. "Please, I... you have to see this for yourself. I wanted to... to show it to you first, to get your... input on it."
Puzzled, Nagai studied the other man for a few moments, trying to figure out what was going on. Finally he sighed. He had come all this way; he might as well see what it was all about. Maybe there would be some way he could claim credit for part of it, whatever it was, and increase his standing in his employer's eyes. "Fine. Just make it quick."
"Of course." The doctor led Nagai through the hallways to Ekim's treatment room and opened the door, gesturing him inside. Nagai stepped through the doorway, only to let out a cry of shock as two of the nurses lunged at him from either side. They had been waiting just inside the doorway, and they grabbed hold of him the moment he came into view, forcing him to his knees with frenzied strength.
"What the hell? What is the meaning of this?" Nagai thrashed left and right, trying to break free, but the nurses' grip was too strong. "I demand that you let go of—" But his voice broke off, his throat constricting in abject terror as the figure on the bed before him pulled itself up to a sitting position.
While it still retained the form of the human it had once been, there was nothing human in its moments. Each limb moved slightly out of step with the others, as though manipulated by something without even a passing interest in natural human function. Hideous burns covered the body, but it showed no sign of pain from them. Its seared, sightless eyes did not focus on anything in particular, though just the fact that they turned in Nagai's vague direction was enough to make his skin crawl.
Even Nagai could tell that it was no longer Ekim who was controlling his body. It was nothing more than a living meat puppet from something far, far worse.
Then the thing spoke.
Nagai could not understand the awful words, but the intent behind them hammered into his very psyche. Images filled his mind, images of Ekim's ritual materials, the implements by which he had worked his master's magic. And accompanying the images, a single concept, burned into Nagai's brain.
Nagai tried to resist the compulsion, but he could do nothing to escape the implacable pressure. Time seemed to slow to a crawl, as he gradually lost track of the outside world. Was it minutes? Hours? Either way, eventually the only thing that existed was It's voice.
Finally Nagai broke, sobbing out everything he knew. "Tanizaki took everything!" he blubbered. "Everything Ekim had collected! And... and even more! The other artifacts Ekim was always trying to find with the money Tanizaki paid him... Tanizaki knew what he was looking for, and had me arrange to find them first! He hid them in one of his secure vaults, so Ekim could never actually find what he was looking for and complete his ritual!"
The reply was immediate, an overwhelming demand that crushed what little remained of Nagai's will like an eggshell beneath the weight of it. He knew beyond doubt what It required of him.
As dawn broke over Tokyo, Tanizaki watched the sun rise through the windowed walls of his penthouse office. His thoughts were devoted to refining his plan for the coming battle. One way or another, this would be a decisive day.
Behind him, the elevator door opened and Zhang stepped out. Tanizaki smiled as he greeted his right hand man. "Welcome back. How are you feeling?"
"Mostly recovered." Zhang stretched, as though trying to remove some residual stiffness from his frame. Between the martial artist's phenomenal natural healing and the magitech pods they had obtained from the Dark Kingdom, he showed no outward sign of the grievous injuries he had taken. "I'm not one hundred percent yet, but I can fight."
"Good." Tanizaki turned back to look out over the city. "We can't afford to take half measures. I'm sending the Wyrmspawn and our remaining Synths, but while they're making an overt attack, I also want you to take advantage of the chaos to infiltrate, find out where they're keeping Sailor Moon, and dispose of her. One way or another, we need her dead."
Zhang nodded. "Yes sir. But what about Unit Zero? Will she be participating in the attack as well?"
"No," replied Tanizaki. "I am keeping her as far away from this battle as possible. Just as killing their Sailor Moon will win this conflict for us, if our Sailor Moon dies and theirs is able to reclaim the Silver Crystal, then we will find ourselves in a great deal of trouble."
As he spoke, Tanizaki's lip twisted into an expression of annoyance. "The Wyrmspawn is one of the few beings on this planet with a realistic chance of killing Unit Zero. That strength can work in our favor... but it would be entirely possible for a fighter of Ranma's caliber to lure that crazed beast into attacking her, were he given the chance."
Watching Tanizaki's expression, Zhang chuckled. "You really hate having to rely on something so uncontrollable as part of your plan, don't you?"
"I do prefer that my pieces move as I direct when I play a game," Tanizaki admitted. "But circumstances force us to adapt. While Unit Zero's power would doubtless have been helpful in this fight, we cannot risk her attracting the Wyrmspawn's attention."
"True," Zhang agreed. "Not to mention that Sailor Saturn will be there. If Unit Zero were on the battlefield, Saturn could wreck our plans in an instant if she ever got desperate enough to bring down her Glaive and invoke her power over Death."
"Which is another reason why the Wyrmspawn is the superior weapon for this situation," Tanizaki said. "Despite its... regrettable unpredictability. No magic will function against it, leaving our foes with only physical means."
As he spoke, a thin smile crossed his face. "And as far as purely physical means go... there is not a single one of them capable of giving it so much as a scratch."
The two men watched from on high as the deployment began in earnest, all according to schedule. Soon countless windows began to open in the tall glass structure of the skyscraper. From them poured Synths, an enormous mass of them, grey creatures of every model and variety that Tanizaki had.
Like a swarm of locusts, the army of Synths leaped across the rooftops toward Juuban.
As the grey creatures shot by overhead, a large transport truck rumbled its way through the city streets below. It moved slowly, carefully, grinding forward as though bearing a heavy load.
Within the truck was a containment unit, kept at freezing temperatures, its walls built to block out all signs of the world around it. And within the containment unit sat a hulking, winged figure, covered in frost.
It remained silent, impassive. It did not move, because it had no reason to. The only reason to move was to kill... and it had no awareness of any living thing.