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.
Chapter Eighteen: The Final Gambit
Beneda's skin tingled from the magical energies as she stepped out of the Dark Kingdom portal and into the blasted remains of what had once been Minato Ward. The vista full of burnt wreckage stretched off into the distance in every direction, husks of buildings and rubble, destroyed down to their foundations by the Wyrmspawn's attacks. The cold night breeze rustled the silver, metallic-looking hair of her youma form, and off in the distance she could see storm clouds forming.
Most of the others had gone through before her. She could see Ryouga off to one side, talking quietly with Sailor Saturn. Ranma was looking off into the distance, toward their target, his expression hard and unreadable, while Akane, Shampoo, Ukyo and Kodachi all stood nearby, each watching him with concern in their own way.
Konatsu stood a few steps behind Ukyo, watching her silently even as she watched Ranma. Mousse stood closest to the front, his expression intent, already alert for any threats. Kuno stood just behind him, the somber nature of the moment putting a damper even on his usually-bombastic pronouncements.
Tuxedo Kamen stood near the center of their formation, carrying Sailor Moon on his back, her arms wrapped around him from behind. She was still weak, and they wanted to conserve her strength until she was in a position to make her move. The other Inner Senshi, along with Sailor Chibi-moon, stood in a protective ring around them, tense and ready for action.
Turning to the opposite side, Beneda saw Sailor Uranus, Sailor Neptune and Sailor Pluto standing together. Noting the attention, Sailor Uranus gave Beneda a short nod of acknowledgement before turning back to her conversation with Sailor Neptune.
And then there were the other monsters, a dozen of them. Even more had wanted to come, but Ranma had argued for a more surgical strike team than a full-fledged army. They didn't know what tricks Unit Zero might still have up her sleeve, so responsiveness and skill were deemed more important than large numbers. He hadn't wanted to bring someone who would just get mowed down, their life lost to no effect, so only those with the highest combat ability had been chosen: five lemures, three daimons, a single droid and three youma.
The rest had been asked to guard the civilians in the Dark Kingdom, in case Tanizaki tried to make another attack while they were away. Sailor Uranus had privately questioned whether they could leave it to them alone, but Sailor Venus had spoken up in their favor, arguing that they could be trusted.
In fact, Beneda had noticed the blonde Senshi spending quite a bit of time with the monsters lately. Particularly with the lemure Jimenko; the two of them had been thick as thieves in the preparation leading up to this attack, and even now Jimenko was standing nearby as they both waited for the signal to head out. Beneda didn't know what to make of it, just that it wasn't something she would ever have expected.
Along with Jimenko, Beneda could see anticipation burning in all the monsters' eyes, eager to leap into combat and prove their worth to their new masters. All of them had participated in the previous battle, and all of them had seen the apocalyptic final clash against the Wyrmspawn. The fact that Ryouga had killed such an unstoppable juggernaut had only confirmed their decision to serve the "Dark Lords". The story of Ryouga's battle had spread around the Dark Kingdom, growing more wild and exaggerated with each telling.
It boggled Beneda's mind how her impromptu talking-up of Ranma and Ryouga's "villainous" past to give the monsters some hope and get them on board had blossomed into... this. She knew that she needed to explain what had happened to the still-oblivious overlords of this new empire of "evil". She just... hadn't found the right moment yet. Once this is all over, she told herself. Once we're out of danger, we can sit down and figure it all out.
Then a humorless smile crossed her face. Or we could all just die tonight, and not have to worry about any of it.
Not if she could help it, though. Her own power might be small, but she was determined to use every last bit of it to help in this final push. Tanizaki had exploited the misunderstanding that she had created years ago to get as far as he had, to set the Sailor Senshi against her friends while he had finished testing Unit Zero in the shadows. So it was her responsibility to see this through to the end. She clutched tight to the medical kit she held in her hands, looking out in the direction of the enemy's skyscraper... and the dark, roiling clouds covering the horizon.
"I don't like the look of that storm," Ukyo remarked, eyeing the distant sky as well. "If we get caught in that we could lose a good chunk of our fighters to their Jusenkyo curses."
Tuxedo Kamen regarded the storm carefully. "My guess is that it's still at least an hour out," he said at length, and Beneda wondered how much was his own knowledge and how much was his connection to this very planet. "We should be able to make it. But if you don't want to take the risk, then we could postpone the attack until tomorrow."
Ranma shook his head. "No," he said, his voice tight. "No more waiting. We know Tanizaki was buying time to finish... something to use against us. If we want our best chance to stop him before he can get it ready, we can't waste any more time. All this means is we gotta kill him fast. And I was planning on doing that anyway."
A shiver ran down Beneda's spine at the anger she could hear in Ranma's voice, directed at the man who had murdered his father. After a moment, Ryouga spoke up. "Then we ought to get moving," he said. "Every second could count!" Suiting action to words, he turned and prepared to make a leap.
He was stopped, however, by a small tug on his sleeve from Sailor Saturn, who then used a small hand motion to indicate, as subtly as she could, the direction at a right angle to the jump he'd been about to make. Ryouga flushed, but then the two of them quietly turned and launched themselves forward, Sailor Saturn holding tight to keep him pointed in the right direction. Ranma shot forward as well, as did Tuxedo Kamen and Sailor Moon, followed by everyone else.
All of them raced through the devastated remains of the ruined ward together, the united forces of the Sailor Senshi and the Dark Lords of Nerima, charging toward the final bastion of their enemy.
While Tuxedo Kamen ran, he took the opportunity to speak softly to Sailor Moon as she clung to his back, his tone quiet enough that only she could hear. "How are you holding up, Usako?"
"I'm okay," came the equally-soft reply in his ear. "I'm just... concentrating. If Tanizaki forces my clone to use the Silver Crystal, I need to sense it in time to interfere."
Tuxedo Kamen nodded. For a few seconds he ran in silence, before speaking up again. "Do you know what you're going to do?" he asked. "When you face her again?"
"Yes," said the girl he loved. "I thought about it a lot yesterday. I know it's too dangerous for her to hold onto that power. But she also needs a Star Seed to survive. And Sailor Pluto was right. Not even the Silver Crystal can create a new Star Seed from nothing."
Tuxedo Kamen could hear apprehension in her words. Whatever conclusion she had reached, it was not something she'd chosen lightly. But beneath that apprehension he could hear her unflinching determination. He decided to trust that determination, to trust whatever decision she had made without pressing her any further. Whatever her choice, he would support it with every fiber of his being.
It was all he could do.
The attack group ran on, drawing ever nearer to the distant skyline of buildings past the edge of the devastated region.
Ranma kept his gaze locked straight ahead as he ran, focused on his target. A cold, determined fury kept hold of him, but he choked back the urge to run ahead of the group. The final confrontation was so close, but he would not, could not let his anger cloud his judgement again. Shampoo had reminded him of that yesterday, and he refused to let himself forget what she had done for him.
Soon they reached parts of the city that had not been destroyed, running between buildings of increasing height instead of piles of rubble. An eerie silence still hung in the air, however, given that all these areas all the way to Tanizaki's skyscraper and its surroundings had been evacuated to the greatest radius possible in preparation for this very battle.
As they went, Sailor Chibi-moon drew alongside him, glancing over a couple times before finally speaking. "Hey..." she said. "I was just wondering. Did you ever figure out what it was about how Tanizaki fights? That thing you said you were trying to make sense out of?"
Ranma blinked, caught off-guard by the reminder. It felt like a lifetime ago, what with everything that had happened in the week since that brief conversation with the pink-haired Sailor Senshi. He thought back to the strange, almost-imperceptible delay in Tanizaki's reaction time that had forced him to abandon his pursuit of Ranma, allowing him to escape with Sailor Saturn.
"No," he admitted. "The only thing I could think of was that it was the after-effect of some technique he'd been using. But... I don't know. That just didn't feel right, somehow."
The younger girl ran in solemn silence for a while, before asking another question. "Do you think you'll be able to figure it out when you fight him again?"
"Beats me," Ranma said. "Even if I don't, though, it won't matter. Figuring out how to exploit a weakness like that would make it easier... but even if I don't figure it out, I'll still take him down. Beating him at full strength is fine by me."
Ranma looked down at his clenched fist. "Besides," he said. "Tanizaki isn't the only one who still has some tricks up his sleeve."
Zhang leapt from rooftop to rooftop, the young girl he'd abducted the previous day slung over his shoulder. She was bound hand and foot, her terrified cries muffled by a cloth gag. The assassin paid her no mind as he rocketed across the city, until his destination finally came into view. A small, unassuming corner store they had selected for its location along their foes' projected path. Zhang landed outside, walking past the two nervous guards and removing the heavy steel bar on the door to enter the building itself.
The interior was dark; the windows were shuttered so that even the meager light from the nearby streetlamps could not get in. The only illumination was from seven small ritual candles flickering around the borders of the huge magical circle, drawn in blood, that they had recreated by transporting the floor tiles from its original location in Tanizaki's skyscraper. At the center of the circle was Ekim's stone altar, and standing before the altar was the entity currently manipulating Ekim's horribly burned body.
"It's time," Zhang announced, though he didn't know how much the Nameless One understood. "If this ritual takes as long as your texts say, then you'd better get started now. The Sailor Senshi aren't far off. This should be everything you need."
He tossed the girl onto the floor in front of him, then reached inside his sleeve and pulled out the three artifacts Tanizaki had taken, setting each of them down on the floor as well. The expression of Ekim's body never changed, but Zhang could sense a surge of twisted exultation from it all the same.
As the monstrous, burn-covered figure approached, the bound girl began to scream into her gag in earnest, thrashing about in an attempt to get away. Unconcerned, the Nameless One simply grabbed her by her hair and dragged her behind itself toward the altar, heedless of her muffled pleas or attempts to resist. Satisfied, Zhang turned with a swirl of black robes, exiting the store. The door shut behind him, abruptly cutting off the girl's cries.
Zhang re-secured the door, just to be sure, then turned to the two guards, their faces even paler now than before. "You should get as far away from here as you can," he told them. "There's no point in you guarding this place anymore." The pair needed no second bidding. They turned and ran without looking back.
Before leaving, Zhang took a moment to check the explosive charges he had set all along the exterior of the building. While they had needed to get the lengthy ritual underway if they wanted it to complete in time, he hadn't given up on killing Sailor Moon himself. If he succeeded, there would be no need to risk dealing with the Nameless One... and he could cut the ritual short with the press of a single detonator button.
After confirming that the explosives were still in place, Zhang took to the rooftops once more, heading toward a different building, one quite a distance from the ritual site, and significantly taller. That was where he had decided to make his ultimate attempt on Sailor Moon's life. Upon reaching it, he drew a large bow from his sleeves. Then he pulled out an arrow, its head coated with deadly poison like all of his blades. Then he waited.
Then, once he judged that his target would be getting close, he pulled out a small vial and removed the stopper, bringing it to his nose and inhaling deeply. The sickly-sweet smell of the Linghun Zhi Yan Incense filled awareness as he closed his eyes, sharpening his senses, expanding them far beyond what even he could normally manage for at least ten minutes.
The incense was yet another one of the Four Arts' assassination tools, perfect for long-range sniping. It was, however, highly addictive, so he preferred not to use it unless absolutely necessary. But in this case, he could not afford to hold anything back.
If he made this shot, they would win.
He slowed his breathing, steadying it. In and out. In and out. His eyes shut, but his sixth sense alert. Until finally, out on the edges of his perception with countless buildings in between them, he detected the presences of his quarry. Some of them had the more developed battle auras of martial artists, while others were more normal, their strength doubtless lying in magic, not ki. Others still had auras that were entirely inhuman.
But only one pair moved perfectly together, as though one were carrying the other on their back. There she is, Zhang thought as he nocked his first arrow, pulling it back into a full draw. She's the one I need to kill.
The shot itself was no issue. He could adjust the spin of the arrow as he launched it, could infuse the fletching with ki that would enable it to swerve impossibly around buildings to reach its target. The real problem was Mousse. The blind warrior had developed impossibly formidable detection abilities of his own, and he would doubtless be on high alert. Perhaps the element of surprise would be enough to get around his danger sense... but Zhang doubted it.
For several long seconds Zhang studied the approaching presences. Gauging their speed. Tracing their movements. Predicting their responses. Then he raised his bow and fired his first arrow nearly straight up, arcing toward his target's course along an incredibly high elliptical path.
He waited a few more seconds. The timing would need to be absolutely perfect. Then he pulled more arrows from his sleeves, firing them as fast as he could along a much more direct course.
Sailor Venus ran through the darkened, empty streets, staying close to Sailor Moon. The rest of the Inner Senshi were clustered around their weakened leader as well. It doesn't look like they've tried to use Unit Zero yet... she thought. Does that mean they already—
But her train of thought broke off as a white-robed blur shot across her field of vision. The next instant a shower of sparks filled the air, as Mousse pulled out a sword out to block an arrow that would have hit Sailor Moon in the head.
More arrows followed the first, raining down at Sailor Moon along twisting, swerving paths that struck from many different angles. Mousse whipped his sword in furious arcs around him, deflecting the merciless barrage. Some arrows began to target other Sailor Senshi as a distraction, but after the first shot the other martial artists were alerted to the threat. Ryouga yanked his belt-sword free and used it to smack an arrow away from Sailor Uranus, while Ranma darted back and forth, swatting multiple arrows off-course with his bare hands.
But it was Mousse—positioned firmly between the shooter and Sailor Moon—who bore the brunt of the attack. He showed no signs of faltering, however. Arrow after arrow he struck aside, his swings only increasing in speed. Until, for one of the arrows, he didn't swing. Instead, he held his sword in its path at a very precise angle, the edge of the blade tilted so the projectile ricocheted just slightly upward, shooting over Mousse.
Sailor Venus tracked the arrow's new path... then her eyes widened as she saw another arrow, this one plummeting straight down toward Sailor Moon from directly overhead. But before it could hit her, the arrow Mousse redirected struck it, causing both of them to go spinning away even as Mousse hacked down three more arrows coming in from the front.
"Quick, protect Sailor Moon!" shouted Sailor Mercury, pulling out her transformation pen. Sailor Venus instantly realized her intent; the same defensive field they had once used to defend Sailor Moon against Kunzite. She pulled out her own pen as well, a bit clumsily due to only having her left hand to use.
The four Inner Senshi took positions around Sailor Moon, Tuxedo Kamen and Mousse. "Venus Crystal Power!" called out the blonde Senshi, joined by similar declarations from her friends, and a cube of glistening energy formed around them. Mousse, however, stepped outside its dimensions before it could appear.
"Just hold on for a little while," he said, not turning back to face them. "I'll deal with this at the source."
Then he burst into motion, running off in the direction of the sniper. Sailor Venus' heart clenched in worry as she watched him go, alone, toward the final confrontation with his old enemy.
Zhang exhaled in irritation. Another failure. Despite all his efforts to distract Mousse with the frontal attack, he had still detected the arrow he'd tried to slip in from above. Now Sailor Moon was safe behind some kind of barrier, and Mousse was coming straight toward him.
The assassin lowered his bow, returning it to his sleeve. Seconds later Mousse leapt into view, jumping from rooftop to rooftop until he landed further down on the same building as Zhang. The two warriors regarded each other in silence, the only sound the whispering of the cold breeze as it tugged at their fluttering robes.
Mousse was the first to speak. "Attacking from this far away, with no line of sight, with that level of accuracy... you used the Linghun Zhi Yan Incense, didn't you? I can smell traces of it on you."
Zhang laughed. "Of course," he said, a nostalgic smile crossing his face. "I see you still remember my father's lessons. It's poetic, don't you think? Until I saw you at that warehouse I thought I'd closed that chapter of my life completely. But here we are, in the end. The last two practitioners of the Four Arts of Assassination in all the world. The final deathmatch to decide the true inheritor of our style, while the fate of the planet hangs in the balance."
The assassin reached into his sleeve and pulled out a sword. His sword, the one Zhang had earned from passing the same trial Mousse and his friend had tried to run from, killing his own training partner so many years ago. He drew the jian blade from its pure white sheathe, then swung it through the air. "Did you keep the blade I left for you?" he asked. "Or did you throw it away to try and hide from your guilt? To hide from the fact that you were one of us?"
By way of reply, Mousse reached deep into his own sleeve and pulled out his matching sword. He ran his fingers along the hilt, feeling its contours. His thumb traced the symbol on the hilt—the number four. "No, I couldn't bring myself to get rid of it," he said. "I knew I had done something terrible. Something that couldn't be undone. I think I kept the sword so I wouldn't forget that."
But then, without ceremony, he tossed the weapon disdainfully to one side, sending it clattering away across the rooftop. "Except I don't need it anymore," he said, his voice sharp and clear. "Now I have a better way to remember what happened. Not just my failure... but also the future that my friend entrusted to me, even though I didn't deserve it. That's a gift I'll fight to protect."
Mousse took a step forward, leaving the fallen sword behind him. "And you're wrong about something else. This isn't a fight between the last two practitioners of the Four Arts. I reject everything that style stands for... and it's not as though I ever learned the other three arts anyway. I'm just Mu Si of the Joketsuzoku. Master of Hidden Weapons. That's all I need to defeat you."
Zhang let out a short laugh, equal parts amusement and skepticism. "Really. Then show me, 'master of hidden weapons'... what your one style can do against someone with mastery of all four!"
With that the assassin burst into motion, covering the distance between them in the blink of an eye. His sword slashed out so fast that it seemed as though he was striking from multiple angles simultaneously. But Mousse matched his every swing, a pair of tridents shooting from his sleeves to clash against the blade. As the blind warrior made his defense, he also tried to trap Zhang's blade with the tridents' prongs and twist it out of his grip.
After a few close calls where he was almost disarmed, Zhang twisted away, slipping his prized sword back into his sleeve and then launching a spray of chains out of the same sleeve a moment later, channeling his ki through the metal links to manipulate their trajectories and attack Mousse from multiple directions. Mousse spun as he leapt backward, deflecting chain after chain, then hurled one of his tridents straight at Zhang's heart.
Zhang bent backward, his torso going parallel to the ground as the weapon shot past his face with inches to spare. At the same time, with a twitch of his wrist he managed to coil one of his chains around Mousse's ankle. Turning his dodge into a backflip, he wrenched Mousse bodily through the air toward him as he landed, while drawing a spiked mace and swinging it at Mousse's incoming form.
Discarding his trident, Mousse drew a large metal shield in midair and reinforced it with his ki, using it to block the mace. The attack crashed into his defense with a resounding clang of metal against metal, and while the shield held, the impact sent Mousse flying back through the air and off the edge of the building, falling seven stories to land on the ground below. His feet skidded across the street as he came to a stop.
An eager grin on his face, Zhang walked over to the rooftop's edge, looking down at Mousse. "Let's see how far your mastery of hidden weapons really goes!" he called out. Then he reached deep into his sleeves and began to hurl innumerable projectile weapons at incredible speeds, his hands blurring to invisibility as he flooded the air with a furious rain of steel that gleamed harsh in the moonlight as it fell.
Mousse grit his teeth and responded with volley of his own that intercepted Zhang's projectiles. Countless weapons of all different types crashed into each other at every point between them, ricocheting off each other and into yet other weapons along all manner of complex, criss-crossing trajectories. Often one of them would slip bombs into the stream of attacks, the resulting mid-air explosions blasting large numbers of nearby weapons off in even more chaotic patterns.
The all-out contest continued... until Mousse finally broke the stalemate. From time to time one of the blind warriors' deflected projectiles would go crashing or slicing through the wall of the building Zhang was standing on. The assassin thought nothing of it... until, without warning, the entire structure began to crumble beneath his feet.
He could sense where the key support beams were! Zhang realized, as he fell earthward amidst a shower of brick, steel and plaster. He was targeting them all along!
With thunderous noise, the large building completed its collapse. Zhang landed amidst the wreckage, coughing from the dust kicked up by the building's fall and slightly off-balance, but his guard still up. He had hardly touched ground, though, before Mousse came bursting through the cloud of dust like a vengeful ghost, a scimitar swinging toward Zhang's throat.
The assassin managed to yank a dao sword from his own sleeve and raise it. The weapons clashed with a force that sent reverberations through Zhang's body, the blades locking, the two enemies straining against each other as they played out their final dance of death.
Ekim's body lurched unsteadily through the abandoned, candle-lit store, shambling around the circumference of the huge magical circle. As it went by, its finger touched each of the six artifacts in succession, whispering hideous incantations in a barely-audible voice. With each artifact that it touched, the nearby blood that made up the magic circle began to glow crimson, spreading out from each artifact's position until the entire circle was alight with hellish radiance.
On the altar at the center of the circle lay the sacrifice, her wrists and ankles bound to a quartet of stone protrusions made for that very purpose. The child was crying, making pleas that were probably incoherent even in the primitive speech of her insignificant kind. The being manipulating Ekim would have preferred to simply break her mind as it had done all its other thralls, but that would defeat the entire purpose. The sacrifice had to be untainted in order to break all the seals of its accursed prison.
The Nameless One could feel the magic swelling as the ritual approached its final phase. The anticipation of what was to come filled it with malevolent joy. Finally, finally after so many countless eons, it would once more be free to devour.
With a single word of command, bursts of crimson lightning arced up from the artifacts, converging on a point directly above the altar, each of them giving up their magic to fuel the dark sorcery. Vile power saturated the air, radiating out in every direction with overwhelming intensity. Power that would soon secure the Nameless One's release. It was almost done.
Reaching down, Ekim's body picked up the jagged stone knife and began to hobble toward the altar.
As the attack group ran through the city streets, Konatsu noticed Sailor Mars falter in her steps, stumbling in pain as she raised a hand to her head. "Miss Mars?" he called out, concerned. "Are you alright?"
The rest of them came to a stop as well, looking at her with concern. Her eyes were unfocused, as though she were looking at something none of them could see. "It's evil magic..." the young shrine maiden said, shaking her head. "Very powerful. And... familiar. I've sensed this before. It's..." Then her eyes widened in horrified recognition. "But... no, he should be dead!"
Puzzled frowns crossed the faces of most of the others... but Konatsu had been with her when she had fought Tanizaki's sorcerer. He had seen with his own eyes the nature of that man's magic, and he could guess her meaning. "Where?" he asked urgently. "What direction?"
Sailor Mars pointed. "That way!" she said. "It's—"
But Konatsu was already gone, leaping away in a burst of speed so extreme that the very wake of his passing whipped violently at everyone nearby. He took to the rooftops without delay, racing as fast as he could go in the direction Sailor Mars had given him.
The once-dark corner store was now bathed in lurid red light from the crackling locus of arcane energy building in midair above the altar, growing stronger with each passing second. Soon the artifacts began to crumble into dust, their entire essence used up. One by one they vanished, until not a trace of any of them remained.
And with the final artifact's destruction, the moment had come at last. Despite all the infuriating attempts at interference and manipulation from this planet's inhabitants, it would all come to nothing for them in the end. Now they would see the true face of their end, and they would all know despair.
Clasping the stone knife in both hands, Ekim's body raised it high above its head as it spoke the final incantation.
Konatsu shot across the rooftops at inhuman velocity, a nameless dread gathering in the pit of his stomach. He had to stop that sorcerer before he completed whatever it was he was attempting!
At this point he was close enough that even he could detect the wrongness up ahead of him. He raced straight toward it, leaping from building to building at the very limits of his speed until he saw his destination.
It was a small store. Steel shutters covered the windows and the door was barred from the outside, but even through the cracks in the shutters and around the door he could see hellish crimson light pulsing. Konatsu did not hesitate. He dove off the roof straight for the shop window with all the momentum he could accumulate, plummeting down like a falcon.
He hit with enough force to tear the steel shutters from their rails completely, shattering the window inward as he burst through to the other side. As he fell amidst shards of glass, he saw a hideous, burned figure standing behind an altar, a knife upraised, with a sobbing girl tied in front of him. But even as he landed, Konatsu saw the sorcerer stab the blade down.
The ninja vanished, crossing the room in a burst of murderous speed impossible to follow with the naked eye. He reached the altar and vaulted over the edge, using it to brace himself as he swung into a kick that hit the descending knife right in the hilt, driving it away from the child and into the chest of the sorcerer. Ekim's body jackknifed, flying back through the air to crash through the far wall of the corner store and out into the street beyond.
Konatsu landed on the altar, kneeling as he checked on the girl tied there. Pulling out a kunai, he made four quick cuts, severing the ropes that bound her. Then he tried to pick her up, his first priority to get her away from the ominous concentration of red, crackling energy that still hung over the altar, blazing with undiminished fury.
But as soon as she was free to move, the girl began to frantically thrash and flail, driven into a hysterical, unthinking panic by what she had experienced. Konatsu tried to calm her, tried to assure her that she was safe now, but she wasn't listening.
Then, through the hole in the store wall, Konatsu saw Ekim rise once more. Or at least, his body did, but now it had abandoned all human pretense. Konatsu's attack had shattered its frame, its torso hanging limply to one side, with shattered bones protruding through the flesh in places, but still it lurched toward them. Its unnatural motions now made it unmistakably clear that its movement had nothing to do with the body itself, that some outside force was puppeteering that barely-alive shell.
Realizing that the danger was by no means over, Konatsu forcibly picked the girl up and then used two fingers to deliver a quick, surgically precise tap to the back of her neck, and she slumped into unconsciousness. He regretted the necessity, but leaving her awake and panicking would only expose her to more danger and trauma.
Meanwhile, Ekim's body opened its mouth and spoke. As the vile, incomprehensible words poured from its lips, the crimson energy overhead reacted. But before it had the chance to do anything, Konatsu leapt backward, vanishing out the broken window and into the night beyond. He didn't know what that monstrosity was truly capable of, but he had no intention of fighting it with a child in the line of fire.
He took to the rooftops immediately on exiting the building, and saw that the rest of his friends had already caught up, and were coming over the rooftops themselves. "What happened?" asked Sailor Mars, looking at the sleeping girl in the ninja's arms. "Is she hurt?"
"That magician was trying to sacrifice her," Konatsu explained. "Be careful. I think taking her ruined whatever ritual he was planning to enact... but he's still down there."
Deep within the confines of the Nameless One's prison, the ancient horror let out a howl of thwarted rage that shook the very foundations of that pocket dimension. It had been so close! After so many uncountable ages trapped in this wretched cage, after so much planning and so much effort and so much manipulation, it had been just an instant away from freedom... only to have it snatched away, ruined by the bumbling attack of a worthless little insect!
Without the proper sacrifice it would be impossible to free itself from the magic sealing its power, binding it to this place. Even worse, the artifacts that it had worked so very long to identify and impress on the minds of its cult had been used up in the failed attempt. There would be no second try, not with them. And it had been incredibly rare to begin with, finding six such items of the appropriate power and of corresponding natures, all together on one single world.
Even without any provocation, hatred was the entity's normal state. Malice was as essential to it as breathing was to a human. But the sheer wrath that now gripped it was so far beyond its usual hate that it was like comparing a candle to the sun. Every last piece of the Nameless One's essence was utterly consumed with hate for the worms that had dealt it such a humiliating defeat, hate that no amount of suffering could ever appease.
Its stolen body in that world was all but dead. Even the thread of the Nameless One's power manipulating it could not keep it alive for much longer after all the damage it had sustained. But the entity sent Ekim's body stumbling forward nonetheless. There was no chance it could catch up to the sacrifice, of course. But it picked up the fallen knife on its way to the altar.
With an ungainly flop, the entity flung Ekim's body onto the stone surface. Then it had Ekim raise the knife high, directly over his own throat. Even if the ritual had failed... the power could still be put to use. A corrupted sacrifice like this would not be enough for it to escape.
But perhaps... just perhaps... it would be enough for it to reach through.
With a downward thrust, Ekim's body cut its own throat, his blood spilling out and activating the final stage of the ritual. Those wretched creatures might have thwarted the Nameless One's ultimate plans... but their world would not escape retribution.
Its use for Ekim at an end, the Nameless One withdrew the tendril of its power connecting them. Control over that burned, broken body returned to Ekim for those last few seconds of his life, as he lay there, unable to move, bleeding out on his own altar. Then the ritual fully activated, and Ekim, the altar and everything within the dimensions of the magic circle were annihilated as a pillar of crimson light erupted toward the heavens.
Konatsu craned his neck to follow the torrent of magical energy as it tore through the roof of the corner store and shot up into the night air. He saw it reach its termination at a dizzying height above them, and then he felt something reverberate through the depths of his soul, like the sound of something shattering.
When the light faded, Konatsu saw that it had left behind a gaping hole in the air. The circular rift hung high above them, its glowing edges continuing to slowly expand across the sky like flame consuming a piece of parchment. And beyond that opening...
It was impossible to determine the thing's true shape. As large as the portal was, the entity beyond it was so staggeringly enormous that not even a hint of its overall form could be discerned through such a narrow opening. All Konatsu could see was a mass of roiling, pustulant flesh, shifting and warping to the creature's malevolent will as it intruded unnaturally into their reality. He could see mouths—countless gnashing, fang-filled maws set within that flesh, all screaming in a thousand discordant voices, but all united in their hate for all that was not them.
Just the awareness of it in his sixth sense was enough to shake Konatsu to his core. He could feel the presence of the horror beyond that portal, its nature displayed to him in a way most humans could not understand. His legs trembled as maddening thoughts assailed him, urges to kill his friends, to dance in their blood, to rip his own tongue from his mouth and then sing songs of despair that no flesh could produce.
And worst of all, he could sense that this was only a tiny fraction of the thing's true power. It was still mostly sealed, unable to extend anything resembling its full influence in their world through such a meager connection... but even that was an effort to withstand.
Gritting his teeth, Konatsu steeled himself, calling on his mental discipline to hang onto his sanity. Around him he saw the other martial artists do so as well, some with more difficulty than others. The Sailor Senshi, on the other hand, showed no sign that they even noticed the effect. And the monsters appeared to fall somewhere between the two extremes. Not entirely unaffected... but as creatures originally meant for service to other beings of a somewhat similar nature, it did not seem nearly so debilitating to them as it was to the humans.
As they watched, huge, writhing tentacles vomited out of the portal. They wrapped their misshapen lengths around the edges of the gateway, pulling and straining in an attempt to increase the speed of its opening. The effect was immediate, noticeably increasing the rate at which the hole spread. "We have to do something!" cried out Sailor Mercury, fear in her voice. "We need to stop it somehow!"
"If we hit the tentacles, we might at least be able to slow it down!" shouted Sailor Uranus. Planting her feet, she summoned her blade in a flash of orange light, gripping it with both hands as she focused on charging her power. "Space... Sword... Buster!"
Her attack was far larger than usual, wide slashes of magical energy racing skyward as she swung. Higher and higher they went, until it was difficult to see them anymore. Watching the attacks disappear against the backdrop of the creature's appendages drove home to Konatsu the true scale of what he was looking at. But though he couldn't see the attacks anymore, he did glimpse the results when they hit: distant bursts of foul ichor, the superficial cuts tracing the lines of Sailor Uranus' swings.
A near-deafening roar erupted from the creature beyond the portal, filling Konatsu's mind with visions of the end of all things. One of the larger tentacles abandoned its pulling at the portal's edge, instead swinging down from above with terrifying speed. Konatsu's eyes bulged as he saw it descend, and he heard Ranma scream. "Move!"
No one needed any second bidding. The attack group scattered in different directions as the vengeful strike fell, everyone running headlong with all the speed they possessed. The Sailor Senshi instinctively kept close to Tuxedo Kamen and Sailor Moon, while the group of monsters ran in the opposite direction. Konatsu followed the latter, clutching the girl tight to his chest, ignoring his body's protests as he tried to get as far away as possible.
Then the tentacle hit.
The earthshaking impact instantly crushed the long line of buildings directly underneath it. Even as far away as he'd gotten, the convulsion of the ground beneath him threw Konatsu forward, stumbling. Behind him, the sheer air displacement from the hit burst outward in an expanding shockwave that disintegrated even more buildings in its path. The ninja fought to keep his footing, fought to keep running forward in an attempt to outrace the blast.
He managed to stay ahead of it long enough for it to bleed off a great deal of its force, but it still caught him. Just before it did, he dropped low and braced himself, minimizing his profile and wrapping himself around the girl in an attempt to shield her. Then it hit, the shockwave slamming into his back along with all manner of debris. As it broke over him, he saw every window in the surrounding buildings shatter, adding their broken glass to the storm of shrapnel carried onward.
As soon as the blast abated, the ninja looked back over his shoulder. The hideous tentacle was many blocks behind, part of it winding snakelike along the ground before curving back skyward. Even lying flat, its width rose taller than the stores that it had obliterated. But it did not lay idle. Rather, it swept toward Konatsu and everyone else who had run in that direction, a rapidly accelerating wall of flesh that effortlessly smashed through everything in its path.
There was nothing Konatsu could do but run. But in moments the oncoming appendage had picked up too much speed. The ninja jumped, trying to propel himself and the girl over the tentacle, but just the force of it passing beneath them was enough to send Konatsu into an uncontrollable spin, sky and ground whirling in his view before he crashed back to earth. He barely managed to twist in midair so that he shielded the girl from the brunt of the impact.
He rolled back to his feet, panting for breath, only to see the tentacle arc back into the air, its gargantuan bulk swinging ponderously around again for yet another strike. This is impossible! the ninja realize in dismay. There's no way we can keep this up!
But even as his heart clenched in fear, a slender figure leapt overhead and into view, landing directly in the path of the oncoming blow. The blade of Sailor Saturn's glaive blazed with pale energy as she wound up for a strike, then swung with all her might. "Silence Cleave!"
The slash of magical power rose up to meet the descending tentacle, and Konatsu gaped as it cut right through. Above, the ancient horror let out an even louder bellow of rage and pain as part of its body went flying away, spinning end over end after being severed in mid-swing. It finally crashed back to earth with an impact that made the ninja stagger despite how far away it was, carving a wide swath through that section of the city before finally coming to a rest.
Sailor Saturn brought her glaive back into a ready position as she glared up at the distant portal. In response, more tentacles of all shapes and sizes abandoned their attempts to widen the breach, instead swinging earthward at the one who dared stand against them.
With wide swings, the young Senshi met the tentacle assault head-on, unleashing her deadly power skyward, cutting down attack after attack. Her short hair whipped back and forth about her face as she swung, fierce determination in her gaze. Enormous pieces of the entity's body plummeted down from above in a gruesome rain of flesh, hammering the city below as the two titans matched their powers against each other.
At the same time, Konatsu saw smaller objects start to tumble down out of the portal as well. It took him a moment to realize that they were the same smaller spawn that they had fought a week ago, when the sorcerer had possessed Ranma. But this time they were falling in overwhelming numbers, pouring down from the sky like raindrops in a thunderstorm.
Several of the battered monsters began to pull themselves out of the rubble and back to their feet, recovering from their own leaps over the first tentacle's swing, as did Ukyo and Kodachi, who had fled in that direction as well. "By all the hells..." whispered one of the daimons, looking up at the sky. "What are we supposed to do against something like that?"
"We help!" came Beneda's voice. She ran up to where they were standing, panting for breath, leading Ryouga behind her. She first went to check on the little girl, still cradled in Konatsu's arms. The ninja winced, realizing that she was in bad shape. She was bleeding from her ears—probably ruptured eardrums from the shockwave—and her breathing was shallow. Even with the ninja trying his best to shield her, this wasn't a fight that a normal person could survive being anywhere nearby.
Beneda took her unconscious body, examined her for a moment, then turned to a particularly fast daimon. "Take her, and get her back to the Dark Kingdom as fast as you can!" she said, handing her over to the monster, who was more than happy to comply.
Then she turned to the other dispirited monsters. "As for the rest of us..." she said. "You wanted to serve the Dark Lords of Nerima? Well this is your chance to prove you have what it takes! Because taking on insane odds is what they do. Even if it looks completely hopeless, they'll find some way to fight back! And sometimes... sometimes even something small can make all the difference."
Ryouga glanced sideways in surprise, giving her a perplexed look as she spoke about serving the "Dark Lords". His mouth opened, as though to protest, but then he looked over at the expectant eyes of the other monsters and froze. "She's... she's right!" was what he finally blurted out. "I'm not going to give up, and neither should you! We're not dead yet... so let's show that damn thing what we can do!"
As he spoke, the Nameless One's twisted, animalistic spawn started to land behind him from their long fall, pulling themselves back to their feet and swarming straight toward Sailor Saturn. The monsters exchanged quick glances between them, and then Jimenko slammed her fist into her palm. "Well what are we waiting for?" she barked. "Everyone, spread out and protect that Sailor Senshi!"
With a ragged cheer the monsters moved to obey, and Konatsu joined them. Their small formation looked pitiful against the oncoming horde, but they braced themselves anyway, surrounding Sailor Saturn as she waged her own unceasing battle.
Then the leading edge of the swarm hit, and there was no time to think of anything but survival as they fought with crazed desperation to beat back the vile spawn.
On the other side of the battlefield, in the opposite direction from path the first tentacle had swept, Sailor Moon slowly fought her way back to consciousness to see Tuxedo Kamen kneeling over her, his palm glowing with his healing magic. Her thoughts were still jumbled, and it took her awhile to recall what had happened. The desperate flight. The tentacle swinging down. The shockwave blasting her and Tuxedo Kamen through a building. In her weakened state, it must have knocked her out momentarily.
Even now, her vision swayed dangerously and she was having trouble focusing, but she forced herself to sit up and look at how the battle was going. She could see Sailor Saturn's enormous attacks shooting skyward, cutting down tentacle after tentacle, while a stampede of misshapen creatures charged toward the area she was attacking from, with more falling from the sky with each passing second.
But while the horde was focused on Sailor Saturn with rabid single-mindedness, the other Sailor Senshi had moved to flank it, taking to the surviving rooftops and preparing their own most powerful attacks. As she watched, her friends unleashed a massive combined barrage. Fire, ice, lightning, water, and pure magic—all of it swept across the battlefield in a single cataclysmic outpouring that obliterated a huge chunk of the enemy force, breaking their momentum and giving respite to the fighters protecting Sailor Saturn.
No matter how many they killed, though, even more of the spawn kept falling from the ever-widening portal above. I need to help! she thought, as she tried to stand. I have to do something!
But her thoughts were interrupted as Ranma landed next to them. "Come on," he urged her. "We gotta keep moving."
She looked at him in shock, dismayed at the thought of leaving her friends to fight alone. She could tell he didn't like the idea either, but he remained resolute. "You're not going to be any use against that thing, not unless you take back the Silver Crystal," he insisted. "Unit Zero is the only one you can fight right now, and you're also the only one of us that has a chance of beating her. So let's go finish this."
"He's right, Sailor Moon." said Tuxedo Kamen. "Believe in them. They're fighting to give you this chance."
It still tore at Sailor Moon's heart to leave them, but she knew they were right. This was what she had to do. She turned to Ranma. "Unit Zero won't be alone, though. Tanizaki will be with her."
"I'll handle Tanizaki," was Ranma's curt response, his voice brooking no argument. "You just concentrate on that clone. It'll all be for nothing unless we can stop him from using her."
Sailor Moon nodded, then once again allowed Tuxedo Kamen to lift her onto his back. Then, in a burst of speed, the three of them raced toward Tanizaki's skyscraper once more. Though Sailor Moon kept looking back as they ran, back to the violent interplay of malignant flesh and blazing magic that marked where her friends were making their stand against the menace steadily encroaching into their world.
Sailor Saturn's assault worked to slow the portal's expansion, but it did not stop it. It spread inexorably across more and more of the city, and before long the abomination's reach extended to cover more distant battlefields as well.
Zhang shot down what remained of a street in a zig-zagging, black-robed blur, with Mousse dogging his path at every step. They crashed mercilessly into each other again and again as they tore through what used to be a city, twisting and maneuvering for every slight positional advantage, using and discarding weapons at a furious clip. Each warrior was a cyclone of steel, their blades colliding so rapidly that the sounds blurred into one another.
The Nameless One's spawn fell from the sky all around them... but any monsters that got close to their battle died instantly, shredded to ribbons by the mere air pressure of the slashes the two were exchanging. Their duel tore a path through the monster ranks, but they spared barely any attention for the slaughter.
Then a tentacle swung down from overhead, aiming to crush them into paste. They leapt apart, the enormous mass hammering between them with apocalyptic force. The shockwave flung Zhang away with a short cry of pain. The ground shot past beneath him as he fought to control his trajectory. Eventually his feet landed again, skidding wildly along the shattered pavement, and he drove a sword into the ground to bleed off more momentum.
He had not even come to a stop yet when the tentacle began to rise in preparation for another blow. Zhang sprang forward, racing toward the huge appendage and hurling a spiked chain from his sleeve that embedded in its thick hide. He used the limb's ascension to wrench himself high into the air, swinging underneath it and twisting to shower throwing knives down on Mousse from directly above.
Mousse leapt to one side, then flung up a chain of his own, chasing Zhang into the air. The tentacle began to writhe in an attempt to dislodge them, thrashing wildly back and forth with enough force to rip their arms out of their sockets—if directly applied. It became a test of timing as they swung through the air along twisting, circuitous paths, hurling weapons at each other all the while. When to release a chain that had become dangerous to hold? And where to embed their next chain for maximum effect?
They dueled through the air, filling the sky with criss-crossing barrages of steel, even landing on the tentacle itself at times and trading blows up and down its length before it bucked them off and they resumed their aerial dogfight. But then, with a roar of rage at its inability to swat the two tiny gnats buzzing around it, the Nameless One sent down two more tentacles, each one swinging in at the fighters from opposite sides.
Zhang and Mousse flung themselves clear at the last moment, all three tentacles crashing together behind them in a twisting, writhing mass that almost caught them. Even as they fell they did not stop hurling weapons at each other, and after they hit the ground in matching rolls they were back on their feet and locked in combat again in the blink of an eye. The Nameless One moved to continue its attack, but the two old enemies did not even pause in their attempts to eviscerate each other.
All three tentacles pounded the earth in a series of staccato strikes. These short attacks didn't have the same raw power of the previous all-out swings from the full height of the portal, but they came in far quicker succession, tracing Zhang and Mousse's path through the city. The two combatants were moving so fast that it would have looked like teleportation to the untrained eye. The force of the Nameless One's near misses buffeted them back and forth, the air around them thick with flying debris. But they simply incorporated the shockwaves into their maneuvering as they hacked at each other with every weapon imaginable.
Not even the end of the world would prevent them from finally settling what had been set into motion in that small forest clearing, all those years ago.
Tuxedo Kamen ran through the deserted city streets, Sailor Moon on his back and Ranma running beside him. As they pushed deeper into Shinjuku Ward the buildings grew taller and taller, until soon they were running past skyscrapers with regular frequency. The Nameless One's portal had not yet expanded this far, though they could still hear the distant tumult of the battle echoing.
They ran in tense, worried silence, until at last they reached their destination. Tanizaki's skyscraper rose up before them, towering over even the other skyscrapers around it, an immense glass-and-steel monument to its owner's ambition. Tuxedo Kamen drew in a deep breath, then let it out. This was it.
"I can feel her," Sailor Moon said softly. "She's up there. At the very top. Waiting for us."
"Then that's where Tanizaki will be too," said Ranma, already moving forward. "Come on. Let's go."
The main entrance was locked, so without ceremony Ranma kicked in one of the ornate glass doors. Gleaming shards scattered out across the lobby floor, and they advanced into the deserted, eerily silent building. They made their way over to the elevators, and the pigtailed fighter wrenched open the doors. Then they began their ascent, bounding from wall to wall. The sheer height of the building made it seem to take forever, even for them, but finally they reached the top. Ranma forced open the maintenance hatch, and they emerged out onto the roof.
Up this high, the cold night wind tugged at them even more sharply. Tanizaki stood on the opposite side of the roof, looking out across the city to where the cataclysmic battle against the Nameless One still raged, visible even at this distance. Unit Zero stood at his side, clad in her black leotard. She was already watching them, tense and wary.
"Welcome," Tanizaki said, turning away from the spectacle to face them. "I am glad you made it this far, Ranma. While it would have been safer for my plans if you had died to Zhang or the Nameless One... I must admit that a part of me would have felt cheated if I missed the chance to finish matters with you personally."
Ranma stepped forward, his battle aura seething around him, thick with murderous intent. "Oh, we're finishing this," he agreed. "But you're not going to like how it ends."
A faint smile crossed Tanizaki's face. "We'll see," he said. "At the very least, I hope you last longer than your father did."
For a moment, Tuxedo Kamen was afraid that the taunt would goad Ranma into making a rash move. But, though the pigtailed fighter's fists clenched tighter and his jaw muscles worked, he didn't let it compromise his judgement. The lesson Shampoo had driven home at such cost to herself was still holding.
Behind him, Sailor Moon climbed down off Tuxedo Kamen's back and stepped forward as well. To his surprise, he noticed little sign of the weakness that had been affecting her. And the closer she got to Unit Zero—the closer she got to the Silver Crystal—the more color returned to her face. She spared Tanizaki a passing glance, but then turned and addressed her clone. "Please, listen to me," she implored. "I know you're afraid. And I know you don't have any reason to trust me. But—"
"But nothing," Tanizaki interrupted, his voice sharp. "You know the consequences of disobedience, Unit Zero. I order you to kill Sailor Moon!"
The clone cringed at his words, her look of desperation growing. Then, with a wordless cry, she raised the Silver Crystal. A flash of light burst forth from it, and Sailor Moon staggered in pain, clutching at her chest. After the light receded, Unit Zero was no longer wearing her black leotard but rather a flowing white dress. The incredible power of the Moon Princess radiated out from her, and raising her palm, she began to charge an attack of immense magical might.
Both Tuxedo Kamen and Ranma began to back away in apprehension. But Sailor Moon did not move, her gaze still focused on the clone. Then, just as Unit Zero was about to hurl the attack... she crumpled to one knee and doubled over, clutching at her own chest in a very familiar way. At the same time, the Silver Crystal blazed bright once more, and an identical white dress replaced Sailor Moon's uniform.
Unlike the clone, however, in addition to the white dress, a pair of beautiful white wings extended gracefully from Sailor Moon's back, the sign of her Eternal Moon Princess form. Despite himself, a grin crossed Tuxedo Kamen's face. Even with the clone holding the tighter connection to the Silver Crystal, the true Sailor Moon was still far more adept at its use. Despite fighting at a disadvantage in the tug-of-war over the crystal's magic, she had still achieved the more powerful transformation.
This fact was not lost on Unit Zero. The clone forced herself back to her feet, but her breath was coming more rapidly and the fear in her eyes had grown. She looked over to Tanizaki, her expression begging for guidance.
Tanizaki frowned as he regarded the obvious disparity. Then he turned to Unit Zero. "Well?" he asked. "If you want to survive, then match her."
The clone looked down at the Silver Crystal which was levitating directly in front of her heart in this form. Then, a wild desperation in her eyes, she clenched her teeth and called on even more power, causing the crystal to glow even brighter. She clutched her hands to her head, her face a contorted mask as she attempted to duplicate Sailor Moon's feat by brute force.
As before, the transformation affected Sailor Moon, this time driving her to her knees. But somehow she still looked up. "Wait, no!" she cried out, reaching out with one hand. "Don't try to—!"
A scream drowned out Sailor Moon's words, as Unit Zero's back arched. Wings burst from her back as well... but unlike the graceful unfolding of Sailor Moon's wings, these ripped their way free, forced to emerge unnaturally. Long trails of blood ran down the white feathers, staining them partly red. The clone's body trembled in pain as the wings extended to their full span, but she turned to look at her master again, eyes filled with a childlike hunger for his approval.
Tanizaki's reply was short and to the point. "Your orders have not changed. Complete your task, or you will force me to discipline you again."
Unit Zero whirled back toward Sailor Moon and raised her hand. Once more, blinding white light gathered in her palm. But before she could release the attack, Sailor Moon launched herself forward out of her kneeling position, using a flap of her wings to accelerate even faster. She tackled Unit Zero in a blur of white, grabbing the other girl's hand and yanking it skyward as the impact propelled them both off the roof.
The clone's attack erupted from her palm in a torrent of magical power, lighting up the sky as the beam split the clouds gathering overhead with its ascension. The two flying girls struggled together in midair, spinning back and forth around each other as they hurtled on an uncontrolled course, the clone trying to push her beam down while Sailor Moon struggled to hold it off-target. The stream of destructive magic swept back and forth through the heavens, but it finally spent itself before it could damage anything.
With a frustrated cry, the clone tucked her legs to her chest and kicked Sailor Moon away with both feet. The young princess went flying backward, but she used her wings to check her momentum, bringing it back under control. Tuxedo Kamen rushed over to the edge of the roof, his worried gaze locked onto Sailor Moon.
Flapping her bloodstained wings, Unit Zero flew after her double, unleashing magic as she went. Shorter, quicker bursts this time, not the single overwhelming attack she had tried before. Sailor Moon twisted earthward in a dive, dress fluttering behind her as she swerved back and forth, dodging between the attacks as the clone kept up her onslaught.
Unit Zero did not let up, not for an instant. Her barrage of magical energy followed Sailor Moon's weaving path as she gave chase, creating huge explosions on the ground below when they finally hit. With every passing second the clone increased her rate of fire... but Sailor Moon responded by spinning in mid-flight, gathering power to her hands and smashing incoming blasts away. Then she went on the offensive, flying straight at Unit Zero and colliding together in another blast of magical force.
The two winged girls continued their destructive, high-speed aerial battle across the city. Tuxedo Kamen, however, turned back to Ranma and Tanizaki. Neither of them had taken their attention off the other for even a moment; they stared each other down, the very air between them thick with killing intent. Reminding himself to trust Sailor Moon, Tuxedo Kamen drew a rose into one hand and readied his cane in the other.
But without looking away from Tanizaki, Ranma raised a forbidding hand. "Sorry," he said. "This is between him and me. Don't try to get in the way."
Tuxedo Kamen hesitated, almost deciding to argue, but eventually he lowered his weapons. He would trust Ranma as well. For now, at least. After all, his specialty was emergency backup. He would hang back for the moment, and let Ranma do whatever he had planned rather than try to fight Tanizaki head-on himself. And that way, if things did go wrong, Ranma would not be without support.
Tanizaki stepped back into a stance, and Ranma did as well. Without a word the two of them closed the distance, slowly circling each other, searching for the slightest weakness to exploit. Tuxedo Kamen felt sweat gathering on his palms as he watched the silent contest. Even just as an observer, the pressure was unbelievable.
Then Ranma attacked. There was no forewarning, no hint that gave away his intentions. One instant he was circling, the next he was gone, covering the distance and swinging a kick at Tanizaki's head that the older man somehow still caught on his guard. Before the sound of the first impact even registered in Tuxedo Kamen's ears they had exchanged more blows than he could count—punches, kicks, palm strikes, elbow smashes and even more, hammering at each other from every angle. Each attack led into the next as the two of them fought to control the flow of the battle, and to disrupt their enemy's attempts to do the same.
The display of skill was mesmerizing, and Tuxedo Kamen was certain he wasn't even appreciating all of it. Interweaving strategies, feints within feints within feints. Many of them he didn't recognize until after the traps had been sprung, and he knew there had to be more that he never caught at all. This was, without question, two masters at the very pinnacle of their art, each pushing themselves beyond all normal limits in their attempt to kill the other.
Ranma was right, thought Tuxedo Kamen, looking at the cold fire in both combatants' eyes. The way they are right now... I wouldn't last ten seconds in the middle of that.
And so he could only stand there, bearing silent witness to their final battle.
Cold wind tore at Sailor Moon's face as she banked through the air, her blonde twintails whipping behind her. The clone matched her turn, their white dresses fluttering behind them as they chased each other back and forth through the city, skyscrapers flying past in blurs on either side.
With a flap of her bloodstained wings, Unit Zero maneuvered above her double, then discharged a blast of magic at point-blank range. Sailor Moon twisted into a spin, managing to cross her arms defensively. Then the blast hit, smashing her downward with a cry of pain.
The detonation drove Sailor Moon down at an angle toward the street below, but she managed to land feet-first. Her heels carved long trenches in the pavement, concrete spraying wildly around her as she fought for balance. Then, once she had regained a measure of control over her trajectory, she bent her knees and sprang back into the air, though she kept low to the ground.
The clone dove after her, attacking relentlessly. The world around her erupted into a sea of titanic explosions that she swerved around even as they expanded, filling her entire vision with white. The chase continued until Sailor Moon abruptly reversed her course with a sudden flap of her wings, causing the clone to overshoot and allowing the original to launch herself up behind her, into in her blind spot.
With the blinding radiance from her own barrage obscuring her vision, the clone didn't detect the maneuver until it was too late. Sailor Moon grabbed hold of her from behind, and the two of them spun around each other, locked together, until Sailor Moon slammed Unit Zero into the wall of one of the skyscrapers, pinning her there in a tight bear hug.
"Please!" the young princess begged. "You have to trust us! Tanizaki doesn't care about you! He's using you, and he's going to kill you just to use the Silver Crystal the way he wants! But if you let me help you I might be able to—"
But the clone was terrified beyond listening. Instead, she threw her head back, smashing it into Sailor Moon's face. The headbutt gave Unit Zero just enough of an opening to drive her elbow back into Sailor Moon's stomach, then twist into an uppercut that sent her skyward. The clone followed, not giving her a chance to recover, punch after punch propelling her target higher and higher.
Finally their ascent reached its peak, and Sailor Moon felt herself hang in the air for a moment as gravity brought her to a stop high above the city. Then Unit Zero shot past her, turned, and swung down, channeling all the magical might she could possibly gather into one single blow. The punch turned Sailor Moon into a barely-visible streak of white that crashed through the roof of one of the skyscrapers below.
The initial collision barely did anything to slow her descent, and she continued to smash through floor after floor so fast that the impacts blurred together, indistinguishable. In less than a second she reached the ground floor, then crashed through that as well into the basement. She only stopped when she hit solid bedrock, and even then it was with enough force to shake the skyscraper's very foundations.
With a groan, Sailor Moon rolled over onto her hands and knees inside the crater that her body had created. Looking up, she could see the tiny, distant figure of Unit Zero through the holes she had made in the floors on her way down. Details were difficult to make out, but the white energy crackling around the clone was unmistakable. She was readying a shot that outstripped any that had come before.
Then Unit Zero released all her accumulated power in a single beam. It howled down toward Sailor Moon, who countered by raising her hands skyward and forming a spherical shield around herself. The descending attack exploded against her defense, releasing an eruption of magical force that obliterated everything around her, shattering the building's foundations as it blasted earth and walls outward.
With a groan of tortured metal the skyscraper began to fall, hundreds of thousands of tons telescoping straight downward, each successive floor torn to shreds once it fell close enough to where the magical energies clashed against each other. Sailor Moon gritted her teeth, straining to keep up her shield against the constant assault, with no end in sight.
Eventually, though, the clone's attack abated. The skyscraper was long since destroyed, and several of the surrounding ones had toppled, their wreckage strewn everywhere. The moon princess stood in the midst of it all, looking up at her distant double.
Words aren't going to get through to her, not like this, Sailor Moon realized with a heavy heart. She's too scared, and she's not listening to anything I say. And we're running out of time. Glancing to her right, Sailor Moon saw the hole in the sky, still distant but steadily expanding as it disgorged huge tentacles that swung down in an unceasing attempt to kill her friends.
The menacing sight sent doubt and dismay twisting through her. What should I do? she thought. I need the Silver Crystal to stop the Nameless One... but if I take it from her by force and go fight it, she'll be dead by the time I get back. But if I follow my plan for saving her, then there's no way I'll still have the strength to fight the Nameless One! I can't do both!
She wanted to believe that there had to be a way to save everyone. But she had believed that before... and Ranma's father had died as a result. She couldn't count on any guarantees. Ranma had been right; they didn't really exist, not for anyone. There was only the question of what choice she would make. What choice she could make. And what she was willing to risk to do so.
Above, Unit Zero threw herself into a dive, hurtling toward her once again, her movements growing even more frantic with each failure to kill her opponent. Sailor Moon lowered herself into a crouch, then leapt up to meet the clone with a flap of her wings, the two of them dodging and weaving as they converged, exchanging energy blasts back and forth as they shot past each other, then swerved to wind around each other as they resumed their twisting dogfight.
Even though it pained her to do so, Sailor Moon forced herself to go on the attack. No matter what I choose, I need the Silver Crystal before I can do any of it, she thought. I just... need to do the best I can. And... even if I have to make a choice in the end... I'll keep trying to find another way.
Right up until the very last second.
Tanizaki grimaced in annoyance as Ranma's ferocious charge forced him to give ground, struggling just to deflect all the strikes coming at him. They shot back and forth across the rooftop, their bodies constantly vanishing in flickers of unbelievable speed. Ranma's attacks hit with a savagery that far exceeded the last time they'd fought. He's using his rage at his father's death to fuel his offensive, Tanizaki thought. And yet somehow... he's not letting it cloud his judgement. The worst possible combination.
Even as he considered the situation, Ranma pressed his defenses with a pattern of attacks so brutal that Tanizaki almost missed the more subtle feint they concealed, and barely avoided the trap. This boy truly is a prodigy among prodigies, he thought, as he dodged left and right, weathering hit after hit. Each time I fight him, he adapts to counter more and more of my style. Even things I haven't used on him yet—just by extrapolation from what he's already seen!
Certainly the tactics that had given him the advantage in their previous fight were of no use anymore; Ranma was guarding his pressure points zealously now, and against someone of Ranma's skill—who was expecting it—it was far too easy to make an attack miss when it required such perfect precision. How long has it been since I faced someone who could give me this much trouble? Tanizaki wondered. I can't even remember.
It was almost a shame that the boy had no chance whatsoever of winning.
The intensity of Ranma's attack was irritating... but not a true threat. Not to him. And no matter how much anger Ranma had to call on, the cold reality was that it was impossible to keep such an offensive up indefinitely. Tanizaki could see exactly how the fight would play out in his mind's eye. He would wear Ranma down. He would wait until that ferocity began to falter. And then he would go in for the kill.
It was just a matter of time.
Her chest heaving with near-hysterical sobs, Unit Zero flew at her double in a crazed fury, bloodstained wings propelling her forward with blinding speed as the two of them clashed again and again. Their battle destroyed everything in their path, buildings collapsing, torn to shreds or vaporized in their wake. The clone was pushing the Silver Crystal beyond anything she had asked from it before... and yet it still wasn't enough. No matter what she did, no matter how much magical power she threw at the real Sailor Moon, the other girl just wouldn't stay down!
It wasn't fair. It wasn't fair! She had the Silver Crystal now! It should have been her who had the stronger connection to it, who had the advantage in this fight! And yet Sailor Moon kept coming after her. Relentless. Unstoppable.
The clone's entire body trembled from exertion as the two girls whirled around each other in a raging, apocalyptic storm of blinding white energy. It felt as though searing knives were twisting inside her chest, shredding her from the inside out. The power was tearing her apart, but she kept calling for more. It was the only thing she could do. The only hope she had left.
And all the while, the words of the crimson-eyed Sailor Moon from her nightmares echoed in her thoughts. "I am coming for you," she had promised. "And when I do, you will die. You will die, empty and alone, like the worthless little fake that you are!"
Unit Zero clenched her eyes shut, trying futilely to reject the memory that was coming true right before her eyes. In desperation she reached even deeper, trying to pull more power to her command—
—but instead her body convulsed in pain, her flight path spiraling abruptly earthward as she lost control of her wings. She crashed into the ground, plowing a long swath through the field of debris until she finally tumbled to a stop. Unsteadily, she fought her way back to her knees, only to double over again, wet coughs wracking her. Looking down at her trembling hands, the clone saw that she was coughing up blood.
In that moment, the clone faced the terrible realization that she was reaching the limits of what even her desperate efforts could sustain. She wasn't going to last much longer. Her body was breaking down from the power it was trying to control, while her opponent showed no sign of faltering. She was just too weak. She was going to lose. She was going to fail her master again.
To her left, Sailor Moon alighted. "Please, you have to stop this!" she begged, holding out her hands. "You'll die if you keep fighting! Please, if you'll just—"
Unit Zero lurched back to her feet, stumbling backward while shaking her head in blind terror. No. No, she couldn't fail her master again. No matter the cost to herself. That fact had been tortured into her psyche on a constant basis over the month she'd been alive. The only value she had was in fulfilling Tanizaki's vision.
And... more than anything else... she simply couldn't let go of the Silver Crystal. She couldn't go back to the way she'd been before. To the emptiness. Even death was infinitely preferable.
Which meant she had nothing to lose.
An animal scream tore itself from her throat, and a wave of power exploded out from her in every direction, blasting Sailor Moon back and shattering every building in a five-block radius. No longer was Unit Zero fighting with any thought to her own survival. If giving her life to the Silver Crystal was what it took to fulfill her master's command, then she would do so without hesitation. If she did, then maybe he would finally be pleased with her.
Maybe... he would even remember her as not entirely worthless.
Sailor Moon unfurled her wings, halting her backward trajectory, but before she could do anything more, the clone thrust out both her arms. A barrage of white energy blasts arced out from her palms, scores upon scores of them, all homing in on Sailor Moon along different paths, leaving no opening for escape. A single one was enough to shake the earth with the force of its detonation, and their combined effect was nothing short of cataclysmic, turning the area in front of her into maelstrom of searing annihilation as they hammered against Sailor Moon's defenses.
More blood trickled down from Unit Zero's mouth as she kept up the assault. But she paid it no heed, focusing everything she had into this one last attempt.
"Venus Love and Beauty Shock!"
Sailor Venus hurled the spinning yellow heart into the thick of a group of charging spawn. The detonation ripped apart every beast in the vicinity and sending even more flying as the blastwave expanded. But more rushed in around their fallen kin, lunging at her from every side.
She swung her chain up to snare the nearest one and swing it into the others, crashing it through the entire group. But doing it left-handed was still awkward for her, and she stumbled. That left her vulnerable as the monstrous tide continued to surge forward. A warped, canine-like creature with three inhuman faces fused into a single head leapt at her, and many others followed close behind.
But the beast never reached her, as Jimenko's fist crashed into it, sending it careening back to the sound of snapping bone. "Watch yourself!" the lemure called out, her voice gruff, as she drilled a crude kick into the spawn behind that, then grabbed the next two by their heads and crushed their skulls together. "I don't intend to lose my latest conspirator just because she got careless against this filth!"
A tiny laugh escaped Sailor Venus as she remembered their conversation the previous night. But any humor was swallowed up by her own frustration. I should be helping more than this! she thought, clenching her remaining fist so tight it hurt. If only I were still...!
In the end, she could do nothing but fight on as best she could. But it was obvious that the battle was going against them. The portal above kept expanding, forcing them to continuously fall back to keep the spawn from landing directly within their formation. And the wider it grew, the more enemies could pour through.
The defenders of the planet—human and otherwise—had all pulled together around Sailor Saturn, the only one of them powerful enough to hold back the Nameless One itself. And even that was only a temporary measure. No matter how many tentacles the young Senshi cut down, more just kept writhing through... and she was clearly pushing herself past all endurance to keep up the constant, grueling contest with the dark god.
The way things were going, the only question seemed to be what would fail first: whether the Nameless One's assault would wear her down completely, or whether the spawn would break through to attack her.
In truth, half the reason she hadn't been swarmed already was probably Ryouga. The other defenders all had taken their positions against the horde encircling them, but Ryouga seemed to be everywhere, fighting like a demon, diving into the fray wherever it was thickest, his belt-sword slashing. He looked like something out of a nightmare himself, splattered all over with the creatures' foul ichor, his battle aura boiling with killing intent as he mercilessly cut down any foe that tried to harm Sailor Saturn.
They were holding their own, for now... but Sailor Venus knew it was only a matter of time until they started to fall. Or before Sailor Saturn decided to end the battle as only she could, using her ultimate attack at the cost of her own life. Glancing back, Sailor Venus could tell that the young girl was considering it. Sailor Venus wanted desperately to yell back for her not to do it, that they would find another way... but she didn't know how to say it in a way that wasn't a lie. All she could do was curse her own helplessness and keep fighting, even though that fight was looking more hopeless by the second.
Then Jimenko went down.
A spider-like beast with long bladed legs squirmed past the lemure's guard, tackling her and knocking her off-balance. Instantly, more of the spawn took advantage, piling onto her and dragging her to the ground, in a biting, clawing mass. "Jimenko!" screamed Sailor Venus, lashing out with her chain to rip away as many monsters as she could. But it wasn't enough, and more beasts were already swarming in.
Time slowed to a crawl for the blonde Senshi, her gaze fixed in horror and anguish on the pile of creatures that were in the process of eating Jimenko alive. All because Sailor Venus couldn't help her. All because she was too weak to save her!
And then, deep within Sailor Venus, something snapped.
Beneath the pile of the Nameless One's spawn, Jimenko squirmed and kicked, trying her best to fight back even as the beasts tore into her. She didn't have any hope of getting out of this alive, but damned if she wasn't going to fight every last step of the way.
It was then that she heard a familiar voice scream out a single cry. "Get off of her!"
The next instant everything turned yellow, as an immense beam of searing light swept overhead. The pressure on top of her vanished. Blinking, Jimenko looked up, her jaw dropping at the sight that met her eyes. It wasn't just the beasts on top of her that were gone. The beam had carved a wide arc in front of her, stretching out as far as she could see, reducing every single beast in that area to ash. And standing at the origin of that arc...
Jimenko's breath caught in her throat. Venus stood there... but not as Jimenko had ever seen her before. The human's long blonde hair whipped around her, blown by the currents of raw magical power that engulfed her, as on the girl's forehead the symbol of her planet blazed in golden light.
The lemure had never felt much physical attraction to any of the humans she'd encountered—too pale and fleshy for her taste. But this was something entirely different. Looking at Venus wasn't like looking at someone who was beautiful. It was like looking at Beauty itself, given bodily incarnation.
Even as Jimenko gaped, the battle had not ceased on the other sides of their formation. But Venus was not done. Raising her hand, she pointed a single finger straight up.
"Crescent!" At her shout, golden energy gathered into a single point at her fingertip, so intense that Jimenko couldn't look at it directly. In less than a second, the concentration of power had suffused the air around it to the point where it became difficult for the lemure to breathe. And still it continued to build—until Venus was ready.
"Beam!" The gathered power exploded skyward in a raging column of power that dwarfed its creator, the force of its ascension driving Venus' feet into the pavement beneath her. It shot up toward the clouds, higher and higher, an enormous pillar of crackling yellow light.
Then Venus focused her gaze on the remnant of the monsters surrounding them. And with a single word, she brought her attack to completion.
High above—so distant that it was barely visible—the huge beam split apart. Like the blooming of a golden flower, countless smaller beams unfolded out from their source, arcing through the air to point earthward again.
And then they began to fall.
It was like watching a furious thunderstorm... if every single raindrop struck with enough force to shatter a building. The golden beams struck in a circle all around their beleaguered group, expanding outward as its fury built to a crescendo. The earth shook, some of the defenders losing their footing as the world around them was swallowed up in light, until they could see nothing but the torrent of destructive magic.
When the attack finally abated, the area around them for seven blocks in every direction had been obliterated down to the bedrock—and even that had been shattered.
Even then, Venus was not finished. She looked up at the hole in the sky, looked through it, at the entity that lurked beyond. "I won't let you hurt her," she said, her fierce words somehow resonating across the battlefield despite not raising her voice. "I won't let you hurt anyone else."
With that she began to fire upward, flooding the air with countless beams of deadly yellow light, shredding tentacle after tentacle and ripping through the spawn even as they fell. Between her and Sailor Saturn, they now had two fighters capable of holding back the Nameless One. Their combined attacks lit up the sky, ensuring that—at least for the moment—barely anything made it through the portal alive.
Sailor Pluto left her place in the defensive formation surrounding Sailor Saturn and Venus, hurrying over to where Sailor Mercury stood. The blue-haired Senshi was typing on her computer, making use of the relative respite Venus had given them to analyze the situation. Although if her troubled expression was any indication, she did not like what she was learning.
There was no point in beating around the bush. "How long can we last?" asked Sailor Pluto.
"Not long," was Sailor Mercury's reply. "At the portal's current size—with both Sailor Venus and Sailor Saturn fighting at their current level—we're holding the Nameless One back. But that's only for as long as Sailor Venus can maintain her direct connection to her planet's power. And based on what happened with Sailor Mars and Sailor Saturn, once it falters she'll be completely spent."
Sailor Mercury hit a few more keys on her computer, then looked up. "Worse, the portal is still expanding. Even if Sailor Venus can keep this up, unless we do something soon... the battle is going to start affecting parts of the city that haven't been evacuated." It only took a brief glance at the utter devastation surrounding them to see how bad that would be.
"We can't let that happen!" The voice came from behind them, as Sailor Chibi-moon came running up as well. "We need to stop that thing before it can get that far!"
"I... don't know if we can," said Sailor Mercury, a worried frown on her face. "We are hurting it. But those tentacles... they're just tiny manifestations of its essence that it's projecting into our physical reality. According to my readings the damage we're doing is insignificant. To seriously harm it, we would need... something much more powerful."
"Something like the Golden Crystal?" asked Sailor Chibi-moon.
Sailor Pluto's mouth pressed into a thin, worried line. "That... could work, in theory," she allowed. Certainly the ancient crystal was a fearsome power in its own right. "But... the risks..."
"I know." Sailor Chibi-moon said. Her expression was grave as she looked up at Sailor Pluto. "But we have to try. We're running out of time. You have to trust me, Puu-chan. I'm sure this is the right choice to make."
Something in the certainty with which she spoke resonated within Sailor Pluto. Sailor Mercury must have heard it too, because after a thoughtful pause she spoke up. "If you think that's the only way... then we'll help you," she said, placing her hand on Sailor Chibi-moon's shoulder. "We can join our powers with yours—just like we did with Sailor Moon against Metalia. After all, we'll only have one chance at this. So we have to make it count."
By the time he felt the summons of the Twinkle Yell, Helios had already sensed that something was horribly wrong. Echoes of impossible horror, the spiritual effects creating reverberations throughout Elysion. But it was only after he responded to the call of his beloved, entering the mortal world in his pegasus form, that he realized the true scale of the impending catastrophe, the ancient evil rending the heavens.
What has Tanizaki done? thought the winged horse, unable to comprehend the hubris that would even consider using something so terrible. Sailor Saturn and Venus were holding the abomination back with a combined onslaught of their power, but it was obvious how temporary a defense it was.
"Helios!" Sailor Chibi-moon was the first to greet him, running up as his hooves alighted on the shattered ground. "I'm sorry, but... we really, really need to use the Golden Crystal again!"
He opened his mouth to reply, to remind her of the danger involved. But another glance at the sky was all it took for him to swallow the reflexive warning. Sailor Chibi-moon was right, of course. There was no time for hesitation, not in a situation like this.
Whispering a quick prayer under his breath, his horn vanished in a flash of light, and the Golden Crystal floated over into Sailor Chibi-moon's hands. She closed her eyes, her face taking on a distant expression as she communed with the ancient crystal once again.
Then, in a sudden flash of light, her sailor fuku transformed into a flowing white dress, a pair of white wings unfolding from her back. She opened her eyes, raw power permeating the air around her as she stood there in her own Eternal Moon Princess form.
Seeing her transformation, Sailor Saturn looked over at Venus in between swings of her glaive. "Go help her!" the younger girl urged, panting for breath. "I can keep the tentacles at bay."
"Are you sure?" asked Venus, worried. "Without both of us, a lot more of the smaller monsters will be able to make it through again."
"Leave those to us!" Ukyo said, many of the other surrounding martial artists and monsters also indicating their assent. "We can handle that much. Just make sure you fry that damn thing up there with everything you've got!"
Heeding their words, Venus moved back and joined the rest of the Sailor Senshi gathering behind Sailor Chibi-moon. Once again Sailor Saturn took up the full burden of the battle alone, her glaive slashing without rest, hurling magical annihilation. Helios winced at the exhaustion he could see in her face, but the young girl did not stop fighting, her determination visible in every move she made.
For her part, the young princess walked forward, taking her stand side-by-side with Sailor Saturn. The two friends glanced over at each other, and Sailor Saturn spoke quietly as she fought. "Don't worry. I won't let it hurt you."
"I know," replied Sailor Chibi-moon as she smiled back, absolute confidence in her voice. "I can't think of anything I'd be afraid of, just as long as I had you protecting me."
Then she turned, locking her gaze on the distant portal. Without any further words she raised the Golden Crystal and began to channel her power into it.
Ryouga bared his teeth, his fists blurring as the Nameless One's spawn crashed into their defensive line with a berserk fury that showed no hint of self-preservation. He lunged back and forth, trying to cover as much ground as he could, every kick or punch shattering the bones of one of the misshapen creatures.
Their defenses were stretched even thinner than before, now that all the Sailor Senshi were focused on their last-ditch attack. And without Venus' thinning their numbers, the crazed frenzy of their onslaught was coming harder than ever before as the vile things slashed, clawed and bit. It was clear that the defenders could not hold out for long.
But we don't have to hold out forever, thought Ryouga. Behind him, he could already sense the immense power being concentrated and amplified within the Golden Crystal. We just need to buy enough time for this one attack. Which means there's no sense anymore in pacing myself.
With a low growl, the lost boy called on the rage simmering inside him toward those wretched creatures trying to hurt the girl he loved. And with a blast of force, a building-sized construct of blazing ki exploded into existence around him, molded into his shape. He raised one arm, his projection doing the same. Then he lunged forward, swinging in low, stretching his arm out to its utmost reach, plowing straight through the oncoming enemy in the widest arc his enormous doppelgänger could manage.
The sweeping attack turned scores upon scores of the stampeding beasts into paste, clearing out a wide area in front of the beleaguered defenders. Nor did Ryouga stop there. He continued to inflict as much carnage as he could, striking over and over again with huge glowing fists that shook the very earth, glaring out at the vile things through the raging curtain of his manifested killing intent.
"Mercury Crystal Power!"
Sailor Chibi-moon held the Golden Crystal in front of her as she felt Sailor Mercury's magic flow through her into it. The sensation was unmistakable; she could feel the imprint of her friend's soul in the spiritual current, the thirst for knowledge and truth, the quiet wisdom and earnest dedication that was so much a part of her. It flowed into Sailor Chibi-moon like a raging torrent, as Sailor Mercury opened every last floodgate within her, eschewing all control or restraint. She entrusted the young princess with all that she was, allowing her magic to be drawn out to its utmost depths.
"Venus Crystal Power!"
A second stream of magic added itself to the first, its origin no less palpable, its power no less great. That joy, beauty and madcap, irrepressible zest for life and love could be no one else. Venus' power coursed through the crystal, mingling with that of Sailor Mercury's and becoming something far greater than the sum of each.
"Mars Crystal Power!"
Next came Sailor Mars' magic, blazing with all her passion and temper and fierce sense of right and wrong, yearning to unleash itself against this evil that had brought so much harm to the innocent. It was an unquenchable fire of conviction... enshrouding a tender, caring heart that she only showed to those closest to her.
"Jupiter Crystal Power!"
After that, Sailor Jupiter added her own contribution. The young princess could feel the older girl's strength, her loyalty, her steadfast dedication. The power of a true guardian, one who would never give up while others were depending on her.
The combined powers swirled together, a storm of unbelievable might. Sailor Chibi-moon used the Golden Crystal to amplify it even further, reaching new heights in her use of the ancient weapon that was her birthright through her father's lineage. Her arms began to tremble with the effort of marshaling it all, and she could feel the Golden Crystal heating up in her hands, but she ignored the pain.
You've got to hang on... she told herself. We're only just getting started!
Shampoo lashed out, swinging her remaining unbroken chui mace in quick arcs around her, smashing the oncoming spawn back. She was panting for breath, her Chinese dress ripped at the left shoulder where a lucky bite had left deep gashes. The throbbing ache slowed that arm's responses, but Shampoo fought on as best she could, determined to buy every last second possible.
Beside her, Akane was in even worse shape, the entire front of her gi stained with blood from where a claw had raked her chest, and the left side of her face had been mangled by another slash. But she showed no more sign of giving up than her rival. Shampoo shifted her stance subtly, trying to draw more of the creatures' focus to herself without Akane realizing it. The odds against them were grim... but if anyone were to die, it shouldn't be the one who Ranma truly cared about.
In fact, if she were to fall here, wouldn't that solve everything? A warrior's death protecting the entire world... surely the Joketsuzoku could find no fault in that, even if she hadn't fulfilled her obligation toward Ranma. She could avoid any dishonor... and avoid any drastic measures toward the girl fighting beside her. Drastic measures that she knew would soon become her duty, but that she knew deep in her soul that she could no longer bring herself to employ.
Except Shampoo had hardly made that adjustment to her stance when Akane made a countering adjustment to her own, taking more of the danger back onto herself. "Don't even think about it!" snapped the Japanese girl, as she drove a kick into a monster's fanged jaw. "We're all making it through this!"
Shampoo laughed. Had the two of them really been fighting together for that long, that Akane could read her so effortlessly? All those long training sessions together, weeks turning into months turning into years... A tiny smile of reminiscence crossed her face, as she redirected a claw slash to impale through the skull of a different monster, then backhanded the first monster away. "Shampoo teach Akane too well. Training was supposed to keep Akane safe against enemy. Not to stop Shampoo from doing what is necessary."
"That's because it isn't necessary!" Akane insisted, punctuating her words by grabbing a huge beast by the head and slamming it to the ground so hard its bulbous skull shattered. "We'll find some other way. A way everyone can be happy!"
Shampoo let out an exasperated huff, while using her chui to uppercut a beast so hard that its mangled body went flying end-over-end. "Is no way like that. Akane is talking nonsense."
"So what if I am talking nonsense?" answered the other girl, as she hit a monster with a full-on headbutt. "Since when has that ever stopped us? I can't even count how many insane things we've pulled off together over the last few years, just because we were too stubborn and too stupid to realize they couldn't work. So why are you suddenly worried about making sense now?"
A gleam of mad determination entered Akane's eyes as they fought. "If there isn't any way for everyone to be happy, we'll make one. And if that's impossible, we'll do it anyway. I don't care what it takes, and I don't care if it's something that would be completely insane for anyone else. Because after all these years I've gotten pretty used to insanity by now... and if making sense means that I have to lose you, then to hell with making sense!"
The words hit Shampoo square in the chest, and for a few moments she could not reply, focusing only on beating back the snarling creatures. When she finally spoke, it was through a small, rueful smile. "Akane is... too, too greedy."
Akane laughed. "For something like this?" she asked. "Damn straight I am."
Back at the center of the defensive formation, power crackled through the air, swirling in multi-colored streams around the small girl in the long white dress, while Sailor Saturn stood beside her, cutting down any danger before it could threaten them. Behind Sailor Chibi-moon, Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune raised their hands, channeling their magic together.
"Uranus Crystal Power!"
"Neptune Crystal Power!"
The princess felt the resolve and dedication of Sailor Uranus, her commitment to defend this world and to defend Sailor Neptune, no matter the cost. That devotion was matched and returned in equal measure by her lover; Sailor Chibi-moon could feel their powers intertwining so similar and yet so unique. Sailor Neptune's refined elegance and Sailor Uranus' more brash, playful streak. But their souls were wound around each other as much as any two could be, the two of them working seamlessly together for what they believed in.
"Pluto Crystal Power!"
Then Sailor Chibi-moon felt the strength of her oldest confidant, her precious Puu-chan. She could feel Sailor Pluto's worry and concern for her, undiminished from the day when she had first befriended the lonely guardian of the Gates of Time. That worry gave her even more strength, from the realization of how devastated Sailor Pluto would be if Sailor Chibi-moon were hurt. This... is nothing! the young girl thought, as she fought to channel the power. I can do even more than this!
Tightening her grip on the Golden Crystal, she called on every bit of power stored within it, tapping the very deepest reserves of the strength it had gathered from the beautiful dreams of humanity, using every last shred of it completely. Please, she prayed. Please, please, please let this work!
Deep within the most secluded reaches of Elysion, in a harsh, desert dreamscape so isolated that no human dreamer could ever reach it, Melinoe stood at the center of the vast network of chains keeping her prisoner.
Unlike the shadows of herself by which she still influenced the dreams of humans, this was her truest, most fundamental core. She wore her human shape at the moment, the large metal manacles attached to her arms and legs, along with a similar bulky collar fastened around her neck, all attached to the complex web of thick chains holding her in place. They wound tight around her, immobilizing her, before stretching out to the horizon in every direction.
Of course, mere dreamstuff molded into the semblance of steel could never have held her. The real strength of her seal was in the countless glowing runes that had been inscribed into her chains, and the powerful magic that flowed through them, illuminating the mystic sigils with golden light.
Except, as Melinoe watched, the already-dim light filling those runes began to fade even further, soon flickering like a candle in the wind. Finally, as she watched with bated breath, the light disappeared entirely, leaving the runes empty and inert. Completely without power.
Well, well, well... thought Melinoe, her crimson eyes gleaming. This is unexpected. And even after I was kind enough to warn my little brother about what might happen if he let the humans use that trinket too often! Is the situation out there really so dire that it would drive him to such recklessness? How unfortunate for him.
And how fortunate for me.
Then, drawing in a deep breath, she raised her arms to either side to the limited extent that her bonds would allow. And with that she flexed her power.
With a shriek of tortured metal the chains binding her shattered. Every single individual link that made them up tore themselves violently apart, starting next to her and expanding outward through the web of steel toward the horizon. That only left the manacles and collar, but a moment later even those wrenched themselves asunder one by one.
And for the first time in eons, Melinoe stood completely free.
Gleeful mirth bubbled up from within her, emerging first as a small giggle, but quickly turning into wild, ecstatic laughter. Free! Free! She was finally free! She raised a hand, feeling her magic flow through her unimpeded, reveling in the ability to exercise her true power for the first time in so long. The very foundations of Elysion trembled with a mere thought from her, announcing to all the return of the mistress of nightmares.
And she knew just who she would visit first with this newfound freedom.
The path her little brother had taken to manifest in the physical world had left a link back to Elysion, and it was child's play for Melinoe to take advantage of it, manifesting just as he had. Her vision warped around her as she leapt across the boundaries, appearing in a flash of red light as a black-coated pegasus. She looked around as she landed, noting with amusement the pitched battle surrounding her. Ah, I see. So that unsightly thing is what pushed my brother to such desperation.
The Sailor Senshi were mostly clustered in a half-circle, pouring all their power into the Golden Crystal. They couldn't interrupt what they were doing, not at this stage, though Sailor Pluto did look over at her arrival. The woman's fear at witnessing Melinoe's advent was delicious. They had been struggling to survive against one eldritch power broken free of its confinement... and now they suddenly found themselves faced with two such beings.
Her brother likewise gave her a terrified, stricken look, which she met with a smug smile. But he was not the one she had come for. It was not his expression of horror at his own foolishness that the dark pegasus was giddy with anticipation to witness. Savoring the moment, she finally turned to that aggravating, pink-haired little girl, and saw that...
...she... didn't even look surprised to see Melinoe!
The girl was holding the Golden Crystal in a deathgrip, sweat running down her face as she struggled to control the immense magical energy she was directing. But even so, she managed to find the strength to glance back over her shoulder, offering Melinoe another one of those guileless smiles she had worn in their conversations in Elysion. "Hey," she said. "What took you so long?"
Melinoe spluttered for words, all the wind going out of her sails in an instant. She'd intended to revel in the little brat's terror before dramatically revealing her actual intentions. But had the child really seen through her so easily? No... it was worse than that. Had the girl actually planned this from the beginning?
After a few seconds the dark pegasus regained some remnant of her composure. "Just so you know... I'm not doing this because of any of the nonsense you were spouting at me!" she insisted, though even to her own ears the words sounded more petulant than she'd intended. "It's obvious that dead humans can't have nightmares, isn't it? I don't want some repulsive beast slaughtering my food supply—that's all this is!"
The brat said nothing to contradict her, but that damnable smile still didn't leave her face. Grinding her teeth, Melinoe pushed all those arguments from her mind, focusing on the task at hand. She trotted up to one side of Sailor Chibi-moon, her flabbergasted brother taking up a position on the other side.
And then, for the first time in untold millennia, the siblings combined their power. Instead of Helios constantly fighting just to keep her in check, the two eldritch beings brought their magics together, acting as one. She had almost forgotten how good it felt to have her little brother on her side once again.
Nor was Helios content with just their own personal power, vast though it was. Melinoe sensed him reaching out through the Golden Crystal, making a direct appeal to the humans across the world whose dreams provided the true root of its power. "Everyone, can you hear me?" he called to them. "Everyone on earth with beautiful dreams! You helped us once before, to save the world from Queen Nehelenia. And right now we need that same help again!"
She could hear the earnest faith in his voice as he made his request to all the puny mortals. "Please! Lend us your power! We can't let our world be destroyed! Please believe in the future of your beautiful dreams, and I know we can protect it together!"
Melinoe scoffed. But then she felt the response as human after human after human across the globe contributed the strength of their dreams to the nexus of blinding power gathering between Sailor Chibi-moon's hands. Individually they were weak... but as billions upon billions of them answered the call, the effect was enormous.
As she watched the power grow, Melinoe thought back to what Sailor Chibi-moon had said back in Elysion—her claim that Melinoe had a role to play in humanity's dreams as well. The idea is ludicrous, of course, she thought. Then she glanced up at the sky, at the scale of the thing they were fighting. And yet... well, I suppose at this point it couldn't hurt to try...
The dark pegasus concentrated. "Listen close, humans," she said, projecting the words out through the crystal much as Helios had done. "I'm talking to everyone on earth who is afraid of what they think is coming. I'm talking to everyone who has lost their hope for the future. I'm talking to everyone who doesn't know if they can face tomorrow, because they've seen how cruel it can be."
She took a moment to think, then pressed forward. "Right now... I want your power. You think you're too afraid? I can show you how to make that fear a weapon. I can show you how to use that fear to push yourself forward. I can show you how to turn that fear into strength. Because right now we need as much strength as we can get. And I have no intention of letting my world be destroyed!"
Nothing happened for a moment. Then the response to her own appeal began to manifest, growing in strength every second, as billions more humans around the world offered the strength of their dreams. Different humans. Humans that her brother had not been able to reach... but that she had.
The power of seven planetary avatars. The power of two eldritch beings. The power of the beautiful dreams and the terrifying dreams of all humanity. It all focused in on one single point. The legendary Golden Crystal, clasped in the hands of the youngest Princess Serenity, inheritor to the legacies of both the Moon Kingdom and the Earth Kingdom.
She accepted it all. The beautiful aspirations and the painful doubts. The hopes for tomorrow and the fears for that same tomorrow. She took in every last bit of it, the Golden Crystal now alight with such searing intensity that not even Melinoe could look at it directly.
It was a magic more powerful than anything Melinoe had ever experienced. A magic more powerful than anything she had imagined to be possible. A magic that existed for a single purpose. To ensure that—whether it was beautiful or painful—tomorrow would come for their world. And to ensure that they would be able to face its pain and its beauty together.
Sailor Chibi-moon thrust the Golden Crystal high, its radiance spilling out over the surroundings, pushing back the night like second sun resting on the earth. A horrendous shriek rose up from the attacking spawn and they fell scrambling back, thrashing and writhing. The light was like acid to the beasts, eating away at their flesh. In a matter of seconds nothing remained of them except puddles of bubbling sludge.
Even that was not the attack itself—merely the ambient aura it gave off as it entered its final stage of preparation. Sailor Chibi-moon kept the Golden Crystal aimed skyward, her pink hair whipping around her face.
Then, with a wordless cry, she released the magic. A beam of light that dwarfed their entire group exploded from the Golden Crystal and raged skyward, annihilating any tentacles in its path and piercing through the portal to strike the entity on the other side. Melinoe heard a deafening howl of agony as the blast tore deeper and deeper into the eldritch monstrosity, piercing unerringly toward the very core of its being. And while it might have been an entity whose thoughts and perspectives were beyond most comprehension... there was one truth which Melinoe was uniquely qualified to evaluate.
In those final moments, it knew fear.
Then the attack detonated, scouring the entirety of the Nameless One's prison dimension with holy magic, space and time itself set ablaze by the forces at play. Only the tiniest, most minuscule fraction of the attack's power escaped back through the destabilizing portal, but even that was an immense paroxysm of golden flame that lit up the night sky.
Sailor Chibi-moon sank to her knees, then pitched forward to fall face-first onto the shattered ground. The other Sailor Senshi crumpled as well, their powers used up completely. Sailor Saturn sank to her knees, finally released from her exhausting defense. She, at least, still had enough strength to crawl toward Sailor Chibi-moon, frantic to check on the condition of her friend.
Melinoe was seconds away from collapse herself. She no longer even had the strength to maintain her presence in the physical world, and she could see that both she and her brother were starting to fade. Still, before she returned to Elysion, she took one last look at the pink-haired girl as she lay there, thinking on the sheer willpower she had shown in accomplishing such a feat.
That was... impressive... Melinoe allowed grudgingly, though only to herself. I... suppose this girl is somewhat extraordinary after all...
Zhang cursed in Chinese as he backpedaled, his swords whirling in a desperate defensive pattern, blocking strike after strike as he struggled to hold of Mousse's relentless assault. Their battle had been evenly matched, right up until the enormous golden beam had torn across the sky into the portal directly above them. It had bathed that entire section of the city in its overwhelming radiance... and in doing so, had ruined Zhang's night vision entirely.
Mousse, of course, was completely unaffected.
The assassin blinked furiously, trying to clear the afterimages from his eyes while defending himself purely based on his ki sense. But that was a manner of fighting at which his opponent was far, far more practiced than him, and it was all he could do just to survive. Even the Linghun Zhi Yan Incense that he had used for sniping had worn off, leaving him no more perceptive than normal.
Then a kick slipped past his guard, catching him in the rib cage and lifting him off his feet. He tumbled back through the rubble, rolling back into a defensive stance, swords held in front of him...
...but Mousse was not attacking. It was difficult to see exactly, but it looked like he had re-sheathed his weapons and was just standing there, his arms at his sides, both his hands tucked up out of sight in his voluminous sleeves. For a moment, silence reigned.
Zhang couldn't understand why Mousse had halted his attack when he so clearly had the advantage, but the longer he could stall before combat resumed, the better off he would be. He blinked a few more times, then called out to his foe. "Not bad," he said, trying to catch his breath. "Not bad at all. But I still haven't seen anything about your Hidden Weapons technique that's superior to mine. I thought you were going to show me how your one art could surpass all four of mine?"
"Don't be impatient," replied Mousse. "I still haven't shown you the full extent of my arsenal."
"Really," said Zhang, skepticism in his voice. His night vision was already recovering; he just needed to stretch this out a little longer. "What good is increasing the quantity of weapons supposed to do? One thousand or ten thousand, it'll all be the same in the end."
"It's not about the quantity," Mousse said. "I've gathered weapons of all types in my travels, from the greatest craftsmen I could find. From China, from Japan, from Korea, from India. That flexibility is the true essence of the Hidden Weapons style. The ability to choose the perfect weapon for any situation. And that's why I have the perfect weapon to defeat you."
Zhang laughed. "You're bluffing," he said. "If you had a weapon like that you would have used it before now. You would have used it in one of our previous fights."
Mousse didn't reply... but the air of quiet confidence he projected began to unnerve Zhang, just a little. Does he really have something? the assassin wondered. What could make him so sure of victory?
Even so, whatever it was, Mousse had made a fatal error in letting Zhang draw the conversation out this long. His night vision, while not completely recovered, had at least returned enough that he could fight without any serious disadvantage. His confidence returning, Zhang sheathed his current weapons and once again drew the sword with the Chinese numeral for "four" inscribed on its hilt. This was his greatest weapon. The very symbol of the Four Arts of Assassination. If Mousse wanted to match weapons, then there was no more fitting counter to use.
"If you're so sure of yourself, then back up your words," Zhang told him, leveling the sword to point directly at Mousse. "If this weapon is really so powerful... then stop talking and draw it!"
For some reason, that caused Mousse's mouth to quirk up in a tiny smile. He raised his head, until his milky, sightless eyes were positioned to directly meet those of his old enemy. Then he answered Zhang's demand to for him to draw his weapon with three simple words.
"I already have."
Zhang sensed a brief flash of ki... and in a spray of blood, the arm pointed at Mousse was severed at the elbow. The lower arm spun through the air until it landed on the ground, Zhang's sword still clutched in its grasp. The assassin leapt back, his eyes bulging as he clutched at the stump with his remaining hand, trying to stem the crimson flow.
The hidden weapons master began to walk closer, a predator stalking his wounded prey. As he did, one of his hands emerged from its sleeve now wearing a black glove inlaid with gold designs. The script looked like Hindi, and the text surrounded the golden outline of a spider. "Hidden Weapons Ultimate Art: Dhaaga Talavaar," Mousse said as he closed in, flexing his fingers. "A weapon that remains hidden even after being drawn."
Razor wire! thought Zhang, his eyes shifting frantically back and forth, trying to locate the deadly strands. No, this is more than just ordinary wire. To make it this thin, this invisible... that craftsmanship is the work of a master!
But it wasn't just the weapon's craftsmanship that was so incredible. Wire that thin would be unfathomably sharp... but also extremely fragile. Mousse had to be manipulating the wires with his ki, supernaturally strengthening them and guiding them. But the level of precise ki control required would be almost inhuman. Even the slightest imbalance in his aura could snap the wires instead of reinforcing them. "I see..." Zhang said through gritted teeth. "So that's why you never used it before."
Mousse nodded. "I never could have managed this while I was still so out of control and consumed with hate. But now..." A small smile crossed his face. "Well. I'm not fighting you alone this time. There's someone else watching. Someone I can't disappoint."
Realizing that trying to see the wires with his eyes in the middle of the night was hopeless, Zhang instead reached out with his sixth sense, trying to find some hint where the next attack would come from. But even now, despite knowing what he was searching for, they were still devilishly difficult to track. The amount of ki necessary to maneuver such thin objects was all but imperceptible, and Mousse was hiding his killing intent masterfully.
If only I still had the Linghun Zhi Yan Incense! Zhang thought. Then his eyes widened again. Damn! That was why he didn't use the wires until now! He knew I'd used the incense for my sniping, and he was waiting to make sure it had worn off! This whole fight he's been biding his time, waiting for this exact moment!
The assassin lashed out with his remaining arm, launching a half-dozen throwing knives from his sleeve. Mousse sprang forward, slipping beneath the hail of blades while making a sweeping gesture with his gloved hand. Zhang leapt away, straining his senses as he attempted to dodge. Where are the wires? he thought. Where will he attack from?
He flung himself in different directions, twisting and leaping, relying more on instinct than a concrete grasp of the attack pattern. Mousse matched his every move, his gloved hand twisting in sinuous motions, manipulating each finger as he guided the wires on their unique paths. Zhang tried to hurl another salvo of blades to cover his retreat, but before he could he just barely sensed something loop around his left knee. Then, with another brief flash of ki, it constricted.
Zhang's retreat became an uncontrolled tumble as the wire severed his leg. The assassin tried to right himself, propelling himself back off his remaining leg, only for Mousse to slice off that foot at the ankle. With that, Zhang finally rolled to a stop, lying bleeding on his back as he looked up at the hidden weapons master.
"You got me," he acknowledged, half-smiling, half grimacing. "Not bad. Not bad at all."
Mousse said nothing, only advanced toward his fallen enemy, his expression unreadable. As he drew nearer, Zhang saw him reach deep into his sleeve, fishing around for something. Soon he was standing directly over the other man.
Zhang considered making one last attempt to kill Mousse, but with only one arm and so much blood lost, he knew it would be futile. Better to meet his end with dignity. This was a moment he'd been ready for from the very first day he'd set out on the path of the assassin. "So..." he said. "This is how the Four Arts of Assassination truly ends. It's funny. In our whole school... the killer with the most potential of all ended up being the 'coward' that everyone disregarded. Even me."
"Maybe," Mousse said, not disputing Zhang's assessment of him. Then he finally found what he'd been searching for in his sleeve... and pulled out a tangled mess of bandages, tossing them down onto Zhang. "But even if I am a killer... that doesn't mean I need to kill today."
Zhang stared in disbelief at the strips of cloth. "You can't be serious."
"The way you are now, you're no danger to my friends," said Mouse. "But someone as tough as you can probably stop the bleeding with those and at least survive."
"Survive like this?" demanded Zhang, gesturing with a jerk of his head toward the stumps where his limbs had been. "You've already taken my art from me! What kind of 'mercy' do you think a life like this is?"
"I never said it was mercy," Mousse replied. "But then again... who knows? You might just find something other than killing that's worth living for, if you have the courage to look. If you do, it'd be more than you deserve... but you wouldn't be the first murderer to get a second chance like that."
As he spoke, Mousse walked past Zhang's fallen body in the direction of Tanizaki's distant skyscraper. "Either way, it's your decision," he said. "I've wasted enough time here already, and my friends might still need my help. I've already said everything I wanted to say, and proved everything I wanted to prove. Frankly? I'm done with you."
With that, Mousse leapt forward in a burst of speed, leaving Zhang lying there on the ground behind him.
With a tug, Beneda finished bandaging the gash in Ukyo's forehead, then turned to survey the rest of the attack group. They were an exhausted, bedraggled lot, most of them completely spent—or in the case of the Sailor Senshi, flat-out unconscious. Sailor Saturn was the only one of their number that was still awake, and even she was leaning heavily on Ryouga to hobble about.
Despite Sailor Saturn's own exhaustion, once she had confirmed that Sailor Chibi-moon had survived her apocalyptic attack with the Golden Crystal she had insisted on using her healing magic to help the injured fighters who were in the most danger. Ryouga was supporting her as she moved from one to the next... while also insisting that she not overextend herself and focus on just stabilizing her patients for now.
Beneda had ended up focusing on those with less severe injuries, giving them first aid so that Sailor Saturn could concentrate on the serious cases. She had also drafted the other monsters who, like her, specialized in ranged attacks to aid in some of the simpler tasks. They had all been focused on providing supporting fire during the battle, and thus weren't in nearly so bad shape as the ones who had been going hand-to-hand in the front line.
On the martial artist side, Ryouga and Konatsu were the only two fighters who were still up and around, a testament to the level of mastery those two had attained. And even Konatsu looked tired, not having the seemingly bottomless reserves of endurance that the lost boy possessed.
As she finished bandaging Ukyo, she heard Sailor Saturn's voice. "Ryouga... what's wrong?"
Beneda glanced back over her shoulder, and saw that Ryouga was looking off into the distance across the wrecked cityscape. At her words, though, he shook himself and looked back down. "It's nothing," he said. "I'm just..."
"...worried about Ranma?" Hotaru finished. Then she nodded understandingly. "You should go. To the skyscraper."
"What? No!" Ryouga protested. "There still could be enemies out there! If they found you while you're still recovering... And... besides, Tanizaki is Ranma's enemy to beat. Even if I was there... it wouldn't be right for me to interfere in a duel like that. Not against the man who killed his father."
But despite his words, it was obvious to Beneda how conflicted the lost boy was. And Hotaru saw it too. "You should still go," she said, her voice gentle. "Even if you don't help him directly, I'm sure it would give him strength if his friend was there. And besides... do you really trust someone like Tanizaki to let it be a fair fight, if it looks like he's going to lose?"
Ryouga's eyes widened a little as he considered that. Konatsu spoke up as well. "I agree with Miss Saturn," he said. "We must ensure that Tanizaki is stopped. You should go where you can do the most good. I promise, I will keep everyone here safe."
Beneda rose to her feet. "Well, you're going to need someone to make sure you don't get lost on the way," she offered. "And knowing how far Ranma pushes himself in fights like these, he'll probably need medical attention. After he beats Tanizaki to a pulp."
The youma gave her oldest friend a reassuring smile, one that Ryouga returned gratefully. "Okay," he admitted. "You guys are right. Let's go see this through to the end."
He allowed Konatsu to take over helping Sailor Saturn move from person to person as she continued her healing. Then, walking over to Beneda, he placed his hand into hers, gripping it tight. Then together they broke into an all-out run, racing across the city and toward the distant skyscraper.
It was in the middle of a particularly vicious exchange of strikes between Ranma and Tanizaki that the Sailor Senshi's attack lit up the sky. The two fighters broke apart in surprise, each turning to take stock of the new development. They saw the subsequent burst of magical flame, and heard the distant, dying howl of the ancient monstrosity.
Tanizaki's lip twisted in annoyance. It galled him that he'd been forced to sacrifice such a powerful piece as the Nameless One, for no other result than to stave off checkmate for a little while longer. From the look of that beam, it hadn't even forced them to use Sailor Saturn's suicide attack, as he'd hoped.
Still, time was the only thing that really mattered now. Time for Unit Zero to fulfill the purpose for which he had created her. He glanced over to a different part of the city, where the battle between the two Sailor Moons still raged, the enormous energy discharges the only things visible from this distance.
Tuxedo Kamen—still holding his position as a witness—spoke up. "If you're pinning your hopes on your clone, then don't. The true Sailor Moon will win."
"She didn't win the last time those two fought," observed Tanizaki. "I fail to see why this time should be any different. Especially since Unit Zero is starting with the Silver Crystal under her direct control this time. Your Sailor Moon is at an even worse disadvantage."
"Of course she lost last time," spoke up Ranma. "She couldn't possibly have won. Someone as kind as she is... there's no way she could bring herself to kill an innocent. Just isn't in her."
"Yes," agreed Tanizaki. "That was the very weakness I targeted. And nothing has changed in that respect. In the end, only one of them can survive!"
Tuxedo Kamen shook his head. "No," he said. "You're wrong. She's had enough time to figure out another way. Otherwise she never would have agreed to this attack."
"She didn't tell anyone what she's planning," added Ranma. "Which means whatever it is, it's something so completely nuts that Sailor Pluto would've probably had a heart attack if she knew what was actually going to happen."
The pigtailed fighter's tone of voice was approving as he speculated on the insanity of Sailor Moon's supposed idea. "So sure," Ranma continued. "Maybe Unit Zero does have an advantage from holding the crystal herself this time. But I'll tell you why you really oughta be worried, Tanizaki. Last time they fought, you set it up so Sailor Moon was fighting to kill that clone. But this time?"
"This time... she's fighting to save her."
Unit Zero screamed in anguish, calling on all the power she could as she pushed the Silver Crystal to its limits. Scores upon scores of devastating white blasts arced out from her hands every second, hammering down on Sailor Moon from above, pinning her in place with their fury. The immense blasts obscured all sight of her foe, but Unit Zero could sense that it still wasn't enough. The magical defenses of the true Sailor Moon were somehow holding. Even with a weakened connection to the Silver Crystal. Even under this assault. They still held.
The clone knew she couldn't fight much longer. Between the near-complete lack of sleep from her constant nightmares and the damage from using Silver Crystal beyond the limits of her capacity, she was at the end of her strength. So she prepared to take the final step. One ultimate strike... in exchange for her life. To her dismay, she didn't think even that would be enough, but it was the only chance she had left.
In the end... it seemed she really was worthless after all.
The clone raised one hand high, pausing in her barrage as power gathered to her surpassing any attack she had yet employed. The explosions faded, revealing Sailor Moon kneeling in an immense crater that stretched several blocks in diameter. The other girl looked up, their gazes meeting, and Sailor Moon's eyes widened as she realized what the clone was about to do. Gritting her teeth, Unit Zero gathered more and more and more power. It was almost there, right at the tipping point—
Before Unit Zero could take the last step, a wave of pure force slammed into her, crashing through her defenses like they were made of glass and flinging her away like a rag doll, disrupting her concentration on the suicidal strike. She spun uncontrollably as she plummeted, crashing down onto the shattered remains of a street and tumbling even farther until she finally rolled to a halt.
Incredulous, she pulled herself back to her hands and knees, looking up in the direction she had come from. She could not see Sailor Moon, who was still deep in the crater. But she could feel the power gathering there, power that made her feel like a butterfly standing in the path of a tsunami. A glow began to emanate from the crater, growing more intense with each passing second.
Trembling, Unit Zero scrambled to her feet and began to stumble backward. Looking down at the Silver Crystal, she saw that it had begun to pulsate, giving off light in a steady, rhythmic beat. It was out of sync with the clone's own heartbeat... but in a flash of terrified realization she knew that it was beating in perfect time with Sailor Moon's own.
With a wail of anguish, the clone clamped both hands around the crystal, clutching it tight to her chest as she backpedaled away. Even as she did so, she saw movement from within the crater as her double levitated out of it. The princess's white regalia shone with dazzling splendor, the very air crackling with magical power. But most striking of all was something else.
Sailor Moon was crying.
The tears streamed down her face as her body shook with emotion. "Stop!" she cried out again. "Please, stop this! Please don't throw away your life—not for a man like Tanizaki!" As she spoke, her power swelled even more, impossible though it seemed.
Unable to comprehend, the clone continued to retreat. But Sailor Moon followed. "There's so much you still ought to experience!" she pleaded as she advanced. "There's so much more to life than what he's let you see! Wonderful things, beautiful things! Like... like ice cream... and going to the arcade with your friends... and watching a sunset... and falling in love... and... and everything!"
In panicked desperation, Unit Zero gathered magic blast after magic blast and hurled them, the attacks slamming into Sailor Moon with devastating force. But she might as well have been throwing droplets of water for all the effect they had. "So please, don't let him take that away from you!" urged Sailor Moon as she drew closer, her tears continuing to fall. "I know he hurt you really bad, and I know you're really scared... but you have to believe me, there's so much more you could be, and I want so badly to show it to you!"
The clone tried to attack again, but this time the attack simply fizzled. She had lost too much control over the Silver Crystal to use its magic directly. She tried to backpedal even faster, but her foot caught on a piece of debris and she fell. Even then she scuttled backward, stopping only when her back hit a large piece of rubble that obstructed her path.
In a last act of frightened desperation, the clone curled herself into a fetal ball, wrapping herself tight around the Silver Crystal and clenching her eyes shut. She knew how futile it was, but she could do nothing else. Only sit there, trembling, waiting for the awful sensation of loss and emptiness that she knew was only seconds away.
But instead of the Silver Crystal being wrenched away, what she felt instead was the gentle touch of a hand on her shoulder. Blinking through her own tears, she slowly looked up to see Sailor Moon kneeling beside her.
"It's alright..." the young princess said, her voice soothing as she gave the clone's shoulder a reassuring squeeze. "It's alright. It's alright. You're going to be okay. I'm not going to let him hurt you ever again. But... for me to do what I need to do... I need the Silver Crystal. But I don't want to take it by force, because that would hurt you really bad. I know it's a lot to ask, and I know you're afraid, but... do you think you could trust me? Please?"
The request shook Unit Zero to her core. There was nothing she feared more than giving up her hold on the one thing that had filled the emptiness inside her. And yet... she knew that at this point Sailor Moon could easily take it from her if she wanted.
Sailor Moon had asked Unit Zero to trust her. The clone still didn't, not really. In her heart of hearts, she couldn't imagine that the princess wasn't going to hurt her like everyone else had always hurt her. It was, in the end, all she had ever known.
But... if there was even the slightest chance left...
With a shaking hand, Unit Zero took hold of the crystal at her chest. One last time her fingers traced its lotus-flower shape, tracing the petals around the central gem. Then slowly, inch by inch, she extended her hand.
Sailor Moon waited, her own hand held out, offering words of encouragement. "That's good. You're doing good. You're very brave. I know this is hard for you. Take all the time you need."
The clone's shoulders shook with the force of her sobbing, her hand so unsteady that it seemed the crystal might drop out of it by accident. But she held it out until it was over her double's hand. Then with a small tilt she released it, sending it tumbling back into Sailor Moon's grasp.
The crystal let out a flash of light as it returned to its true owner, infusing her with a regal, majestic radiance as she once more became whole. It was, cruelly, the most beautiful thing the clone had ever seen in her short life. The tattered, dirty remnants of her own dress, her ragged, bloodstained wings... they felt so shabby in comparison, and the thought twisted in her heart that she truly had never been anything more than the cheapest of fakes.
At the same time, the emptiness she had so briefly escaped rose up to claim her once again. She toppled to one side, her body going limp as the ground rushed up to fill her vision. But before she could hit, Sailor Moon caught her, cradling her in her arms and lowering her gently to the ground. "Don't worry," she said. "I'm going to fix this. It took me a while, but I finally figure out how. Even if the Silver Crystal can't create a new Star Seed from nothing... there is still a way to save you."
Through the desolate ache, Unit Zero gazed weakly up at the girl kneeling over her. "You're brave and strong and wonderful, and you have a future ahead of you that's so much better than what Tanizaki was trying to make you into," Sailor Moon continued. Then she took the Silver Crystal into the palm of her hand. "I know it hurts. But sometimes, in this world, before you can find something beautiful you need to search through the pain. Sometimes you need to clean out a wound before it can really start to heal. And sometimes... before you can fix something..."
She drew in a deep breath, then raised the Silver Crystal high, closing her eyes in concentration. "...sometimes you need to break it first."
Light gathered in her upraised palm, the magic forming to her will around the crystal itself. It began to vibrate, imperceptibly at first, but with each passing second the intensity increased. Soon it was shaking uncontrollably, the very space around it warping and straining from the intensity of the mystic forces brought to bear, as the nigh-invincible resilience of the most powerful artifact in the solar system was matched against the will of Tsukino Usagi to save a life.
Even just watching it was almost too much for Unit Zero to bear. She could feel a tiny fraction of the pain Sailor Moon was enduring through the remnants of her own connection to the Silver Crystal, and it terrified her just to think of the full measure. The crystal's vibration became so violent that it started to emit a tortured shriek as the material strained. Sailor Moon let out a cry of her own, though hers was as much defiance and determination as it was suffering. She clenched her teeth, sweat streaming down her face, focusing more and more of her power.
And then, with a snap so piercing that the sound seemed to reverberate down to the very foundations of the world and down to the innermost depths of Unit Zero's heart, the Silver Crystal broke. The left side of it's lotus-flower structure tore away in an eruption of magic, leaving what remained asymmetrical and marred.
Sailor Moon screamed, a cry of pure agony, the sound of someone who had just torn off a piece of their own soul. She doubled over, her shoulders heaving with each breath as she knelt there. But then she looked up, pushing past the pain. The palm holding the crystal had been badly burned by the forces she had unleashed, but she used her other hand to pick up the crystal piece she had ripped free. She clenched her fist around it, light escaping from between her fingers as she purified the fragment, her magic reshaping its structure as she completely severed its lingering connection to her and created a new connection in its place.
Then she lowered her hand, holding the result out to the clone. "Here..." she managed to say. "This is yours. This is yours."
Her eyes wide, the clone slowly reached out as if in a trance, not believing any of this could be real. But all the same, when the tip of her finger touched the crystal there was a warm glow of light and it vanished within her. Once again the awful emptiness melted away, and she felt whole. There was no longer even the subtle sense of wrongness that had come with her earlier theft—this was truly hers, a gift freely given.
Unit Zero looked up at Sailor Moon, who looked back with love in her gaze. Tears welled up in the clone's eyes, and she lunged forward burying her face against Sailor Moon and bawling uncontrollably as she clung to her white dress. Sailor Moon wrapped her arms around the girl in reply, holding her while gently stroking her hair, until the exhausted clone finally fell asleep.
Sailor Moon looked down at the sleeping form of her double. It had not taken the girl long to lose consciousness, and now that Sailor Moon looked closer it seemed to be more than just the exertion from the fight. The clone looked like she hadn't slept in days, but at least she was resting peacefully now. Sailor Moon let out a shudder of relief. It had all worked out.
She glanced over at the sky, toward where the portal had been, and felt a surge of gratitude and pride at what her friends had accomplished. Alone, I could never have saved both this girl and the world, she thought. But thanks to them, everyone is safe.
Except... Sailor Moon knew that wasn't really true. None of them would really be safe until Tanizaki was dealt with once and for all. She turned, looking back over her shoulder toward the skyscraper, seized by sudden worry for Tuxedo Kamen and Ranma.
She gently shifted the clone's weight, laying her down in as comfortable a position as she could. Then she rose to her feet. Immediately she stumbled, pain wracking her as she fought just to stay upright. Her vision swam, and the glow from the Silver Crystal flashed erratically when she tried to call on its power, giving off bluish-white sparks from the fractured area.
For a few moments she stood there, trying to coax the damaged crystal back into some semblance of functionality. It took all her concentration, and even then the results were... unimpressive. This is bad... she thought. In the state it's in, I don't know how much I'll be able to do. But... I still have to go. I have to do whatever I can to make sure that Tanizaki doesn't hurt anyone else.
Sailor Moon spent a few more seconds in concentration, until the glow from the Silver Crystal stabilized a little more. The she unfurled her wings and leapt into the sky, her white dress flapping behind her as she flew unsteadily toward Tanizaki's skyscraper.
Tanizaki's attacks crashed into Ranma's guard, driving the younger fighter backward, entirely on the defensive now. Just as I planned, thought Tanizaki, taking grim satisfaction with each blow. I've worn him down enough to get the advantage. He's not even fighting back anymore, just trying to survive. It's only a matter of time before—
But a nagging suspicion intruded on his triumph. There was something a tiny bit too easy in how he had taken the upper hand. Barely noticeable, but his instincts picked up on it nonetheless. With fresh eyes he studied his opponent's "retreat", and then realized what was going on.
Ranma was leading him into a spiral.
It was executed with masterful subtlety, but Tanizaki recognized the pattern from the file his people had assembled on the boy. His signature technique: the Hiryu Shoten Ha. Supposedly Ranma had created several different versions, but the fundamental principle was the same. Manipulate the ki from the opponent's battle aura into a spiral, and use it to create a whirlwind that would blast them with their own power.
Tanizaki maintained a poker face, but internally he smiled. Now that he had seen through Ranma's plan, he could use it to his own advantage. The spiral pattern meant that he knew how his foe was going to move, giving him an advantage. So long as he broke off his pursuit before he reached the center he could exploit it while preventing Ranma from completing the technique.
He increased the intensity of his attacks, his battle aura burning even hotter, giving Ranma exactly what he was looking for. The two of them wound a sinuous path, circling inward as they fought across the rooftop. Ranma grimaced as more of Tanizaki's strikes slipped past his guard to score glancing blows. One time, Tanizaki nearly managed to hit one of Ranma's pressure points, but Ranma barely avoided it while still maintaining his path. Still, the strain was showing.
The air was coursing around them now, stirred up by the superheated battle aura, surprising Tanizaki with how quickly they built. Feeling that the risk was becoming too great, he abruptly broke off his pursuit, leaping away from the spiral pattern before Ranma could deliver the corkscrew uppercut required to create the whirlwind. As he jumped back he watched Ranma's face, wanting to see the moment when the boy realized he had been outmaneuvered.
Except that moment never came. Instead, somehow, the raging winds in the spiral pattern continued to speed up, with enough force to curtail Tanizaki's retreat, pulling him back in. Fighting for his balance, Tanizaki slammed his hand into the rooftop, digging his fingers deep into the concrete in an attempt to anchor himself. Staring in disbelief through the howling, ki-infused vortex, he met Ranma's eyes.
"What?" Ranma asked, smirking. "Don't tell me you thought this was a normal Hiryu Shoten Ha."
Tanizaki looked left, then right. He had already cut his own battle aura, no longer feeding his ki into the whirlwind, but too late he realized that it was not just his ki involved. Ranma's ki was intermingled with his own, more and more with each passing second, propelling and controlling the air currents directly.
He's using that damn ki projection trick! Tanizaki thought. Except this was an incalculably more difficult feat than the giant human-shaped projections he'd seen up until now. Those constructs could be controlled more naturally, their motions mimicking the body that had created them. But this...
Ranma had used the setup for the Hiryu Shoten Ha to get the air moving, but instead of kicking it off with an uppercut, he had taken direct control, stealing Tanizaki's own expended ki by infusing it with his own, and wrapping it all into a tornado that raged around him, completely at his beck and call, a perfect extension of his own life force.
In that moment, Ranma was the whirlwind.
Tanizaki felt the rooftop cracking around his anchored fingers as the howling winds threatened to tear him free. His options were limited; he was already inside Ranma's construct, having realized too late the true nature of the trap. Rather than retreat, he lunged forward with a punch, trying to reach the eye at the center where Ranma stood.
But Ranma had anticipated his move. The tornado constricted its dimensions along with his attack, keeping him right in the thick of the winds. They flung him skyward, his punch never reaching Ranma. A moment later, a glowing fist formed out of the currents of raging ki, smashing into him and sending him pinwheeling higher into the air.
He has this much control over the ki flow? thought Tanizaki, as a second fist formed out of the tornado and crashed into his back, followed by a third to his side. How is he manipulating it with this level of precision?
But as the phantasmal punches struck faster and faster, it was undeniable that Ranma was more than capable of such a feat. Bonecracking impacts battered Tanizaki back and forth across the whirlwind, increasing in speed until the hits were coming countless times a second, turning his suit-clad form into a criss-crossing blur of black carried higher and higher.
A final uppercut launched his battered, bleeding body into the calm air of the whirlwind's eye. Looking up, he saw where all the whirlwind's ki had risen. Ranma was not allowing it to escape. Rather, it was coalescing into a single, enormous fist that hung above the whirlwind, pointed down for the finishing blow.
So this was his trump card... Tanizaki thought, as his upward momentum spent itself, leaving him hanging in place for a brief moment. Incredible. The boy truly is a genius the likes of which I've seldom seen. Little wonder he's given me this much trouble.
And then the immense fist plummeted downward.
Ranma watched with savage satisfaction as the giant ki-fist crashed into Tanizaki, smashing the man's body earthward with mind-boggling force. The speed of his descent was so meteoric that even Ranma's eyes could barely track it, but he didn't need to. He knew the timing.
As Tanizaki hurtled down toward Ranma, the pigtailed fighter kicked straight up with a furious split-kick just as the human projectile was about to hit him, catching Tanizaki square in the back. Ranma felt the man's spine snap, his body breaking over Ranma's upraised foot.
For a moment, everything was motionless. The whirlwind around them dissipated, and soon the only sound was Ranma's ragged breathing. "I figured you might know about the Hiryu Shoten Ha," he said. "But that version? The Tenryu Tonan? You're the first person I ever used it against in a real fight. Be honored."
With that he swung his leg earthward, slamming Tanizaki into the rooftop with enough force that he bounced, tumbling away toward the edge of the roof in a limp tangle of limbs. Then Ranma dropped to his knees, convulsive spasms wracking his body in addition to the exhaustion from the technique itself. Unlike the original Hiryu Shoten Ha, where the opponent provided most of the power, this version was a serious drain on the user. Worth it, though, he thought, a grim smile on his face. Totally worth it.
"Are you alright?" came Tuxedo Kamen's worried voice, as he began to cross the roof to come to Ranma's aid. "Did he hit you with an attack as well?"
Ranma shook his head. "Nah, this is just the after-effect of that technique," he rasped. Remote ki manipulation was one thing when the construct matched your own shape. You could do a lot with how it mirrored your own body. But extending that same technique to a shape that didn't match your body—like a tornado—created serious feedback inside your own ki flow that could not be suppressed for long. "Don't worry, it'll only last for—"
But his voice broke off as, through the haze of his misfiring nervous system, his danger sense screamed at him. He turned his head to look over at where Tanizaki lay crumpled, only to see that somehow the man had raised a single hand, two fingers aimed at Ranma's heart. Ki began to gather there, building in intensity.
Damn, damn, damn! Ranma tried to get back to his feet, but his legs were still spasming, unreliable. Tuxedo Kamen broke into a run, racing across the roof toward him, but not fast enough. The ki bolt shot from Tanizaki's fingers toward the immobilized Ranma.
But before it could hit Tuxedo Kamen hurled himself forward, reaching a speed that exceeded anything Ranma had seen from him. He slammed into Ranma, knocking him away in a roll. At the cost of Tanizaki's bolt hitting him instead.
The pale lance of energy tore through Tuxedo Kamen's chest near his left shoulder. With a cry of pain his dive became a tumble, finally coming to a rest in a gradually-widening pool of his own blood.
"Son of a bitch!" Ranma snarled, rolling unsteadily back to a kneeling position at an angle Tanizaki could not easily target from where he lay. Just how much more damage is that bastard going to cause before he finally gives up? he thought. It's not like it'll change anything now. With those injuries there's no way he... can... possibly...
But his thoughts trailed off, his jaw dropping at what he saw. As Ranma watched, dumbstruck, the bruises on Tanizaki's face faded back into the skin. Any cuts and gashes sealed themselves, leaving not even a trace of a scar. Even the rips and tears in his suit were quietly mending themselves. Tanizaki rolled over, and Ranma heard a wet grinding noise as the man's spine reset itself, the broken pieces fusing back together in perfect alignment.
By the time it had finished, there was not the slightest indication that he had ever been damaged to begin with.
"Actually," Tanizaki said as he climbed back to his feet. "It is you who ought to be honored. Because of all the martial artists... in all the battles... in all the two hundred and fifty-four years I have walked this world... you are only the seventh person to force me to reveal this in such an obvious way."
What the hell? Ranma thought, his mind racing in a frantic attempt to make sense of what he was seeing. What is this? Some kind of technique? No, this goes way beyond anything martial arts can do. It's magic—it's gotta be! But how is he doing it?
Tanizaki advanced toward Ranma, attacking mercilessly. The feedback from the Tenryu Tonan was starting to recede... but not nearly fast enough. Ranma lurched to his feet, backpedaling in an all-out retreat, but it was all he could do to survive from moment to moment as Tanizaki used him as a punching bag. There was no chance for any kind of counterattack... and even if there had been, what good would it have done? Any damage would be gone in seconds thanks to his enemy's healing.
No, it's worse than that, Ranma thought, as hit after hit crashed into his guard. It's not just healing. Back in the Dark Kingdom, Helios told us that Tanizaki never sleeps. That must be part of it too! Whatever his trick is, it's constantly restoring him to peak condition in every way. He isn't getting tired either!
In Ranma's weakened state, it was not long before Tanizaki found an opening. He managed to hit two pressure points on Ranma's upper thigh in quick succession, and the pigtailed fighter crumpled with a cry, his entire leg refusing to respond as pain wracked it. Tanizaki stood over him, looking down at his prone form as though he were an insect.
"You realize, you have only yourself to blame for this," he said. "If you had not been so obstinate, you could have secured a place with me instead of dying like a dog. You could have had anything you desired when Unit Zero remakes the world into—"
But he broke off, sensing something. He glanced back over his shoulder... and his face paled at what he saw. A blonde-haired girl in a regal white dress had just risen into view and was flying toward them. A bright light glowed from her chest, and while its radiance made it difficult to see details, there was little doubt that its source was the Silver Crystal.
And her white wings did not have the bloodstains that had marked Unit Zero's.
Ranma grinned "Oh, what was that?" he asked mockingly. "You were starting to say something there, but I didn't quite catch it."
Tanizaki's lip curled in venomous distaste. Without another word, he raised his leg and brought it down in a stomp aimed to break Ranma's neck. But Ranma twisted away, rolling along the rooftop. Rather than chase after him, Tanizaki simply leveled two fingers at Ranma, ki once again building at his fingertips, then fired it.
With Ranma's leg still unresponsive and hurting like it had been dunked in molten lead, there was no way he could dodge like normal. So instead, he threw a ki blast of his own in an attempt to counter. None of his own techniques were as focused as Tanizaki's piercing beam, but he compressed the energy as densely as he possibly could and hoped it would be enough. He barely managed to hurl it in time, the two attacks colliding just a few inches from the palm of his hand.
The beam speared deep into Ranma's ki blast, detonating it with a force that blasted Ranma backward, flinging him clear off the edge of the building. The world spun wildly around him as he plummeted, but he soon got his descent under control. Firing another ki blast away from the building, he used its force to propel himself back toward it, crashing through one of the windows that made up the building's exterior. Glass shards fell all around him as he tumbled along the floor to land flat on his back.
Dragging himself across the office he had landed in, he reached the nearest wall and used it to claw his way back to a standing position. From there, he slowly hobbled across the room toward the exit, and from there toward the elevator shaft leading back to the roof, all the while circulating his ki in an attempt to hasten his leg's recovery.
With the damage to the Silver Crystal it was taking all her willpower merely to hold her magic steady, but Sailor Moon kept herself on course toward the skyscraper, enduring the stabs of pain from her chest that made it hard to think straight.
Ranma had vanished over the far edge, and she couldn't see what had happened to him. Knowing how tough he was, though, she didn't think even a fall from this height could kill him. Still, the uncertainty made her worry for the martial artist... and the sight of Tuxedo Kamen lying motionless in a pool of blood nearly drove her into a panic.
She kept flying toward the skyscraper as fast as she could in her depleted state. As she drew nearer Tanizaki moved toward her as well, walking to the center of the rooftop. I can't risk getting close to a fighter like him, she thought. Not as hurt as I am. I need to stay up high, keep my distance.
Sailor Moon thought of all the suffering and death this man had caused, the cruelty he had inflicted on Unit Zero, the cruelty he had inflicted on the girl they had saved from Ekim. I'd call him a monster... she thought. Except I've spent the past week with monsters that are better people than him. No. No, he's... a human. I can't look away from how bad that can be. If I pretended this was different... it would be an injustice to every youma or daimon or lemure I ever had to kill.
Nearby where Tanizaki stood, Tuxedo Kamen struggled to raise his head. "Watch out, Sailor Moon!" he called out, his voice weak. "He can—"
Before he could complete the sentence, Tanizaki lunged over to him and drove a kick into the masked man's chest that flung him the length of the rooftop, dropping him into a heap at the roof's edge. Sailor Moon let out an anguished cry and swung out her hand, palm outstretched, white light gathering there.
Oddly, Tanizaki made no attempt at evasive maneuvers. He only craned his neck to look up at her, contempt in his gaze. "Well? What now?" he asked. "Perhaps yet another plea for me to change my ways? Or perhaps an impassioned speech on the virtues of love and justice? You could even tell me how much I'm missing by not—"
Sailor Moon clenched her fist.
A pillar of light exploded to life around Tanizaki, completely engulfing his body. Sailor Moon took no chances, expending the very last reserves of her magical power. The magical torrent annihilated Tanizaki down to the subatomic level, and when the attack finally faded there was not a trace of him left.
Seeing that it was finally safe, the princess let out a shudder of relief. She tumbled from the sky, unable to keep the magic stable any longer now that the threat was past. Her white dress twisted around her as she fell, until she crashed onto the roof with a jarring impact. For a while she simply lay there, gasping for breath as the world spun around her. But soon she rolled over onto her hands and knees, crawling toward her injured lover.
"Tuxedo Kamen... Tuxedo Kamen!" she cried out. Finally she reached him, and frantically tore off long strips of her dress, using them as makeshift bandages for his bleeding wound. It was all she could do. She had nothing else left. "Mamo-chan, please!"
Eventually, Tuxedo Kamen opened his eyes a crack. "Usagi..." he murmured, looking up at her. But then his eyes widened in fear at something behind her. "Usagi, look out!"
She looked back over her shoulder, only to see an impossible, nightmarish figure standing there. It was Tanizaki—or at least most of him. His body was still coming back together in places, invisible particles combining to form larger and larger ones, molding back into his body like smoke congealing into substance. There were several gaping holes in his chest where she could see organs in the process of recreating themselves, even as the muscle, bone and sinew grew around them. He glared down at her, then before she could even attempt to react, he struck.
Tanizaki lashed out, driving his fingers into two points on the side of Sailor Moon's neck. At the same time, he jabbed his thumb into a point on the opposite side of her rib cage, then hit a quick succession of two dozen pressure points all across her back. The girl let out a choked gasp, her eyes losing focus as she began to convulse, her entire body going into spasms like it was trying to tear itself apart.
It wouldn't kill her immediately. Tanizaki had made sure of that. He had to keep her alive—but incapacitated—until he could get her downstairs to the bioscience floors of the skyscraper. There the Silver Crystal could be transferred to one of the backup clones, given that Unit Zero was apparently dead.
A triumphant smile spread across Tanizaki's face, and he savored his exultant relief. At last. At long last, he had won. He had laid low the invincible goddess. His gamble had paid off. All the setbacks, all the humiliations, everything he had risked, everything he had lost... he could rewrite it all. He could remake the world into exactly what he wanted it to be.
Using his foot, he rolled Sailor Moon over onto her back, eager to confirm his prize. This offered him his first clear, close-up view of the Silver Crystal since Sailor Moon's return. And as he stared down at it, the expression of confident victory slowly drained from his face, replaced by a look of horrified disbelief.
The Silver Crystal was broken.
The Silver Crystal was broken!
Tanizaki staggered back. He'd attributed Sailor Moon's weakness just now to simple exhaustion from her battle against Unit Zero, but only now did he understand the true cause. Then he remembered Ranma's confident prediction that Sailor Moon had some "completely nuts" plan to save Unit Zero... and he realized what she had done.
"You... you willingly broke it?" he whispered, the words sounding alien and incomprehensible on his own tongue. "Just to save that clone? You had the most powerful weapon in the entire solar system, and you broke it to save one single worthless piece of disposable trash?"
Sailor Moon gave no reply. In the throes of her convulsions, it was doubtful if she even heard him. Tanizaki was left standing there, looking helplessly down at her, atop a deserted building that was all that remained of his centuries of life's work. His empire was ruined beyond hope of recovery... the entire world was his enemy... and his plan to fix all that was now impossible. Even if he transplanted the Silver Crystal into one of the other clones, there was no chance it could achieve the most extreme expression of its power in its current state.
He paced back and forth, increasingly agitated as wracked his brain for another solution, for something he'd missed. But he could see no way forward, not from this, the utter wreckage of his every design. He was going to lose everything he had ever created. All due to the sentimental blundering of one idiot girl!
With a howl of rage, he slammed a kick into Sailor Moon's chest, cracking bone and flinging her away. He stalked after her, a red haze filling his vision, his hands shaking with barely-suppressed fury. He didn't know what his next move would be after this. He only knew that he was going to kill Sailor Moon as slowly and painfully as he knew how.
Step by step he closed in on her, a thousand methods of torture running through his mind, his only regret that he could not use them all. Rage consumed him, and he no longer had any reason not to indulge it. What else was left, but to make her suffer for what she had done to him?
But before he reached her, a white-robed blur shot out of the maintenance hatch leading up out of the elevator shaft. Tanizaki sprang back as Mousse attacked with a series of spinning slashes, driving him away from Sailor Moon. Tanizaki had been so focused on Sailor Moon that he'd been caught off-guard, and for a while he was pushed onto the defensive.
Worse, even as he started to adjust, Ryouga climbed out of the maintenance hatch as well, led by his pet youma. The lost boy rushed to join the assault, while the youma ran over to the slowly dying Sailor Moon and knelt over her.
Now it was a two-on-one fight, both his opponents throwing themselves at him with infuriating resolve, exchanging punches, kicks and weapon strikes with him at dizzying speeds. Tanizaki ground his teeth. None of this changed anything. Nothing they did to him could produce any lasting harm, and he was guaranteed to win any battle of attrition. They were just two more people to kill, more chances to satiate some small portion of his anger.
And then Ranma leapt out of the hatch. Tanizaki could see that he had shaken off the debilitating feedback from the Tenryu Tonan as well as the pressure points to his leg, though he was still tired from the exertion his ultimate technique had required. But his eyes shone with undiminished determination as he walked forward to join the battle.
Tanizaki turned to face him, seething. Because if there was any one person who truly deserved the full measure of his wrath, it was the one now standing before him. It was Ranma who had begun the unravelling of Tanizaki's original plan, saving Sailor Moon from him at their first attack on this skyscraper, when she should have died.
That was the point where everything had started to go wrong. That was when everything had fallen apart.
That was why he had lost.
Tanizaki took a stance, murderous intent seething out from him like a miasma. In that moment, he did not care in the slightest about his eventual escape. Such considerations were less than nothing in the face of the hate that filled him. In that moment, nothing mattered to him except ensuring that none of his enemies left this rooftop alive.
Beneda tried to hold Sailor Moon's convulsing body still, attempting to keep her from hurting herself even as she examined the girl. What did Tanizaki do to her? she thought, tracing the flow of ki through her body, calling on everything she had learned in her medical study. The way her life energy is flowing... I've never seen anything this tangled! I... I don't think I can fix this! I don't know if even Doctor Tofu could fix this!
Unless someone did something, though, it was clear that Sailor Moon was going to die. Beneda hesitated, her thoughts running in circles trying to think of a solution, only to come up blank. And all the while the battle against Tanizaki raged behind her, the sounds of violence filling the air as her three friends matched their techniques against their foe, struggling back and forth across the rooftop with countless impacts every second.
The youma tried to find a way to unravel at least a little bit of what Tanizaki had done. She hit a pressure point three inches below Sailor Moon's heart, followed by one on her side and one on her neck. She had no sooner done so than Sailor Moon's convulsions increased in their violence, her muscles going rigid and blood spurting from her mouth. Beneda let out a string of curses, immediately undoing her attempt. It's no use! she thought. This attack is too complex. I can't even begin to match his skill!
Resisting the urge to panic, she kept hopelessly trying to figure out a solution. As she did, she saw Tuxedo Kamen dragging himself in their direction. She looked up as he reached them, giving him a stricken look of helpless apology. He tried to help himself, placing a hand on Sailor Moon's shoulder and calling on his healing magic. A golden glow suffused her body, but it did nothing to halt her convulsions. "It's not working!" he finally said.
"It's not an injury," said Beneda, shaking her head. "Healing magic might buy her a little time by treating the effects, but it won't help the root cause."
"Then how can we stop it?" Tuxedo Kamen asked.
"I don't know!" Beneda said, examining Sailor Moon again. "The flow of her own life force has been twisted so badly that I can't even begin to untangle it! It's tearing her apart from the inside out, and it's not going to stop until she's—"
Her voice broke off, her eyes going wide. The youma thought for a few moments, her mind racing. Then she looked up, directly at Tuxedo Kamen. "Do you trust me?"
He looked back at her... then nodded. "I do. What is your plan?"
Beneda turned back to Sailor Moon's convulsing body and swallowed. "Something insane."
Ranma dove into a roll, lunging for the chain Mousse had dropped when Tanizaki had kicked him. He caught it, then yanked hard in an attempt to off-balance Tanizaki, who was still snared by the other end. But the older man was ready for it, moving with the momentum in a jump kick that slammed painfully into Ranma's guard, knocking him back.
Tanizaki used the opportunity to rip the chain out of Ranma's hands and with the same motion swing the steel links like a whip across Mousse's face as he tried to stand. But that left him open for Ryouga, and the lost boy drove a punch right into Tanizaki's face. Tanizaki spun away, spinning the chain in a defensive pattern as his three assailants regrouped, circling him warily.
As they watched, the damage from Ryouga's punch was erased, just like all the other damage they had inflicted. Three-on-one, we've got him on the defensive, Ranma thought, wiping sweat out of his eyes. But nothing we do to him sticks! Worse, all of us are tired already, and it's only going to get worse the longer this goes on.
Mousse's chains were their best bet so far. Even if they couldn't hurt him, if they could bind him with enough chains to minimize his threat they might be able to keep him contained until someone could figure out what to do. They had come close to trapping him a few times already, and Ranma was trying to figure out a strategy to pull it off.
Even as he worked on his plan, there was something else distracting him—nagging at him—every time he watched Tanizaki heal. He couldn't put his finger on exactly what it was, but he recognized the feeling. There was something he was right on the verge of realizing, pieces that he was almost able to put together. There's some kind of trick to how he's doing this... he thought. There's gotta be! I just need to figure out what it is!
He scoured his brain for everything he knew about Tanizaki, searching his memories for every detail, no matter how slight. Everything he'd seen, everything he'd heard from the Sailor Senshi, everything he'd guessed or speculated. There had to be something, some way for him, Ryouga and Mousse to beat this endlessly regenerating foe.
And it was at that moment that he remembered something Sailor Neptune had said a week ago, back when they were first clearing the air after joining forces. A simple question, asked almost offhandedly... and one that they had never conclusively answered.
"We've uncovered Tanizaki's plot because of Chibi-Usa coming back again," she had said. "But what about the way things went before? After the Great Freeze was over, what stopped him from picking up again where he left off?"
"Why did our future selves never encounter him?"
"Why didn't they fight you later on?" echoed Ranma, his voice suddenly thoughtful. "Because you gave up? No. A guy like you would never stop trying to come back for a rematch. Sooner or later, you would have fought them again."
Tanizaki frowned, perplexed. "What the devil are you talking about?"
Ranma ignored him, talking to himself more than anyone else. "And... maybe you did fight them. It's just that Sailor Neptune made a mistake in how she thought about it. She assumed you would have been caught by the Great Freeze like everyone else. But you had no way of knowing that Sailor Moon was going to revive the world a thousand years later. As far as you would have known, the whole planet was doomed!"
Now Ranma raised his gaze, looking Tanizaki directly in the eye. "So there's no way you would have stuck around to get swallowed up by the ice," he said. "Not if you had a way to escape."
Another memory flashed through Ranma's head, as the pieces kept clicking together. He remembered Tanizaki showing him the spiky, metallic model floating in his room of magical artifacts. "It's based off of wreckage that one of my teams found buried deep underneath an ancient Mayan temple," he had told Ranma. "Even now, my people are working on a full-scale prototype. When completed, we estimate that the resulting spacecraft will have an effective range extending anywhere in the solar system."
"You told me you wanted a spaceship because Earth wasn't the only place where new sources of power could be found," Ranma continued. "I didn't get what you meant back then... but now that I talked with Sailor Moon, I think I do. You were talking about Nemesis, weren't you? You figured out it exists, and that there was power there."
Tanizaki's frown was still puzzled, but now Ranma could detect hints of uncertainty in his eyes as well. Ranma just kept talking. "So if you thought that Earth was dead, there'd only be one other place in the solar system you could go. And what would you do there? The same damn thing you've been trying to do this whole time! Take the power for yourself. But—just like you did with us—you underestimated what you were dealing with."
Now Ranma smiled. "Which is why you oughta be grateful that I'm going to take you down tonight, before any of that can happen. Because I've already seen what you become when you finally do get the 'ultimate power' you've been trying to steal all this time. I've seen what's left of you after you've spent a thousand years completely alone, with a planet's worth of evil energy rotting you from the inside out. And it wasn't a martial artist anymore. Wasn't even a human. Just a dried up sack of bones that couldn't even remember its own name."
From the shocked expression on their faces, it looked like Ryouga and Mousse had figured out what he meant. Tanizaki, however, did not look impressed. "Brave words," he said. "But these... fantasies of yours will not change anything about our battle here. You have no way of doing me any lasting harm, let alone killing me."
"See, that's where you're wrong," Ranma said. "I don't need to figure out how to kill you. I already know. I figured it out three years ago. You showed me a whole lot of magical junk you'd collected when you were trying to convince me to join you... but there was one you didn't show me, wasn't there? The first one you ever found. The one that let you live this long, accomplish this much. I'm thinking... a crystal ball about... this big. Right?"
Ranma traced a shape in the air about the size of a baseball, smirking as he caught a tiny crack in Tanizaki's poker face at his inexplicable knowledge. Finally, the older man retorted. "Even if this wild delusion were true, what good would it do you?" he asked. "If there was a—hypothetical—object upon which my immortality depended, I would hide it far away from anywhere my foes might be."
"Maybe," Ranma said. "But then why didn't Death Phantom do that? Maybe because he couldn't. When I fought you last time... you stopped chasing me because your reaction time was slowing down. I couldn't figure out why. But now I'm starting to think it was because of how far we were from where the fight started."
Thinking back, Ranma remembered how he had sensed Death Phantom's own twisted life force emanating from within the crystal. "You want to know what I think?" he said. "I think you put a part of yourself into that ball. That's why nothing anybody does to that body can kill you. Because your... soul, or whatever... is always safe someplace else, repairing and controlling that body with the crystal's magic. But what if that magic has a range limit?"
Tanizaki said nothing, but Ranma just gave him a triumphant grin, certain he was right. "I'll bet that body gets harder and harder to control the farther away it is from the crystal ball. That's why you stopped chasing me back then. And that means the key to beating you is somewhere close by. We just need to find it."
As Ranma finished his summation, Mousse heard Tanizaki's footsteps race forward in a furious attack, the man's bloodlust spiking as he resumed his assault with newfound urgency. Ranma and Ryouga moved to intercept, but Mousse did not. Instead he knelt down, placing his palm on the rooftop and reaching out with his inhumanly sharp senses to their fullest extent.
Vibrations from the battle pulsed through the building's structure, and Mousse used them to expand and fine-tune his mental map of the surroundings. He reached out with his sixth sense as well, searching for even the slightest distortions of energy that might indicate something supernatural.
A ki bolt shot past, narrowly missing him due to Ranma grabbing Tanizaki's wrist at the last moment. Their foe had clearly realized what Mousse was trying to do. But Mousse did not flinch, did not falter in his concentration, trusting Ranma and Ryouga to keep Tanizaki occupied.
Then Mousse detected something odd in the penthouse office just below the roof. A subtle dead spot in the floor, a space he could sense nothing whatsoever from, as though it were somehow shielded. Reaching deep into his sleeves, Mousse pulled out a truly immense warhammer, raised it as high as he could, then swung it down.
Mousse fell amidst a rain of debris, landing in the room below, surrounded by the thick steel pillars that lined the wide, spartan space. He was running the instant his feet touched ground, pulling a sword from his sleeve as he raced toward the dead spot. A flurry of slashes broke the shielding and exposed to his senses what lay beneath the now-shredded floor: an alcove containing a large, hard-shell briefcase.
Behind him, he sensed a ki blast tearing a second hole through the ceiling, allowing Tanizaki to fall through in pursuit. Mousse used his sword to flip the briefcase into the air, then with another slash cut it open, exposing the crystal sphere inside it. A sphere that pulsated with a ki signature that matched Tanizaki's own.
With a roar, Tanizaki threw himself at the blind weaponmaster. Mousse, for his part, raised his sword while catching the sphere in his other hand. Then, channelling his ki into the blade, he swung with all his might. Just before Tanizaki could reach him, the sword struck the crystal sphere.
And when it did, the blade shattered into pieces from the force of the strike, without putting so much as a scratch in the crystal.
A split-second later, Tanizaki's fist slammed into the back of Mousse's head, sending the young man stumbling. Before he could recover, Tanizaki hit him with a series of kicks that pinned Mousse against one of the steel pillars, denting it more with each successive impact. Mousse cried out in pain, but he wrapped himself around the crystal ball, hanging on with iron-willed tenacity despite the brutal beating.
Then Ranma crashed into Tanizaki from behind, hitting him with enough force to fold him in half and fling him across the room, straight into a different pillar. Mousse slumped to the ground, his right arm hanging limp at his side, the pain making it difficult to concentrate. But he used his left arm to hold the crystal ball up toward Ranma, who took it.
"I don't know what it's made of," Mousse warned. "But it's tough. I don't know if there's anything you can do that would damage it."
But Ranma only grinned. "Maybe," he admitted. "There might not be anything I can do."
And with that he tossed the sphere back over his shoulder, its arc carrying it right into Ryouga's hands.
Chewing her lower lip in nervous concentration, Beneda hit pressure points all over Sailor Moon's convulsing body. She wasn't trying to undo Tanizaki's attack—not anymore. Rather, she was preparing Sailor Moon's body for what would come next, trying to give her the best chance of survival.
As Tuxedo Kamen did his best to hold Sailor Moon steady, Beneda checked the young woman's ki flow one last time. There was nothing else she could do to get ready. She drew in a deep breath. "Now or never," she whispered.
Then she hit a series of seven pressure points in quick succession. At once, Sailor Moon's body arched, her eyes bulging. Then she fell back limp to the ground, her twisted ki flow ceasing entirely as her heart stopped beating.
Beneda immediately bent over Sailor Moon's lifeless body. She placed her hands one over the other on the girl's chest, interlocking her fingers. Then she began compressions, remembering the first aid basics that had been one of the earliest lessons that Doctor Tofu had drilled into her. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight.
Once her count had reached thirty, the youma plugged Sailor Moon's nose, placed her mouth over the girl's and breathed out. Then she did it again. Beneda could taste the blood and bile from the damage that had already been done to her patient's internal organs. Without pausing, she placed her hands back on Sailor Moon's chest and began another round of thirty compressions.
Beneda continued to repeat the process tirelessly, over and over. Please... she silently begged, as she fought to push life back into Sailor Moon's lifeless body. Please, let this work, please!
Ryouga caught the crystal ball, its weight surprisingly heavy for such a small object. It didn't look exactly as it had three years ago; its glow was a brighter blue, untainted by its time on Nemesis. But it was unmistakably the same item that Death Phantom had used.
Across the room, Tanizaki pulled himself back to his feet, the damage from Ranma blindsiding him already healed. When he saw the crystal ball in Ryouga's hands, he fixed the lost boy with a near-feral gaze that promised imminent, bloody violence. But before he could make a move, Ryouga raised a single fingertip less than an inch above the crystal in silent threat.
Tanizaki froze. He clearly knew what Ryouga could do, and he clearly saw that he had no chance of reaching the lost boy in time to stop him. Ryouga saw the raw, aching desperation in the man's eyes as he stood there, trapped, trying to think of a plan.
Ryouga didn't intend to make him wait long. He just had something he needed to say first. "You know..." he told Tanizaki. "The first time I fought you... you told me that sooner or later I would always end up alone."
Tanizaki stared at him in complete incomprehension, unable to make sense of the claim. Ryouga didn't care; he wasn't saying this for Tanizaki's sake. In the end, Death Phantom hadn't done anything more than confront him with what had been lurking in his own heart. "You told me I wasn't fit for anything but fighting. You told me that I had nothing. You told me that I was nothing."
Then Ryouga thought back to what Hotaru had told him. Not just how she'd proven Death Phantom wrong by her affection... but what she'd shown him about why Death Phantom had been wrong. She'd helped him to believe that he had the strength to keep on looking for happiness, in whatever form it took, no matter how long the road.
With that, the lost boy looked Tanizaki right in the eye. "You told me all those things," he said. "But I've decided that you're full of shit." Then he brought the tip of his finger down hard on the crystal ball's Breaking Point.
Deep cracks began to spread through the sphere, blue light spilling from within them. With an animal cry of rage and anguish, Tanizaki launched himself headlong at Ryouga, moving with such incredible velocity that he almost reached the lost boy. But it was futile.
The sphere didn't just shatter like an ordinary crystal. It ripped itself apart with an eruption of force as the magic within it burst free. The panoramic wall of windows that encircled the room shattered, every single one of the floor-to-ceiling glass panes exploding outward. Ryouga and Tanizaki both took the blast at point-blank range, flinging them away from each other. Ryouga's arms flailed as he shot backward, searching for something to grab onto.
But there was nothing. Instead he flew straight through the empty space where the windows had been and began the long tumble earthward.
Tanizaki shook his head, trying to clear it and dispel the ringing in his ears. He dragged himself to his feet, prying himself out of the damaged steel pillar that he had been blasted into. His black suit was tattered, his hair disheveled. He took a step, only to stumble, clutching at the ache from his chest. Several of his ribs were cracked, at the very least.
And they weren't healing.
For several seconds he simply stood there, looking down at his wounds in shock, unable to grasp what had happened. After more than two hundred years... to lose such a fundamental facet of his existence in an instant. His immortality was gone. His soul had returned once again to his body. He was... aging. Slowly dying even as he stood there. Like every other ordinary human.
They had taken everything from him.
"What's the matter, Tanizaki?" called out a mocking voice from behind him. "Come on, this isn't over. Don't tell me you're afraid of a fair fight, now that you don't have any more magic crap to hide behind."
Slowly, Tanizaki turned to face the one other fighter who had not been blasted clear of the penthouse office. Ranma had managed to hit a pillar as well, blocking his flight, and was still leaning against it. His red shirt was in tatters, and blood was running down from a gash on his forehead into his left eye. He had been pushing himself past the limits of his endurance ever since the Tenryu Tonan... but even now the angry gleam in the young man's visible eye was undiminished.
In fact, it burned even stronger than before.
Tanizaki didn't reply to Ranma's taunt. He didn't trust himself to speak. His only response was the sheer hate in his gaze as he took his stance. Ranma pushed himself away from the pillar and did the same. The two injured enemies faced each other for the last time, sharing the unquestioned certainty that only one of them would walk away from this alive.
They circled each other slowly, each testing the other's defenses with short jabs, trying to gauge how much strength the other had left. But with each passing moment the intensity increased, the exchanges of techniques growing longer and more heated. Soon the frenzy of combat swept them up completely, their fists and feet striking faster and faster.
Tanizaki tore into Ranma like a rabid dog. And Ranma's response was no less violent. They pounded away at each other, heedless of pain, heedless of weariness, each consumed by the absolute determination to see the other fall.
Tanizaki attacked what looked like an opening, only for it to vanish, replaced by the trap he had been too blinded by rage to detect. Ranma twisted around the strike and into a counterpunch that smashed into Tanizaki's jaw, snapping his head around. But as furious as he was, Tanizaki barely felt it. He spun with the force of the blow, swinging his elbow around into a strike of his own that sent Ranma reeling back.
The contest of murderous pugilism ground on and on as they exchanged blow after brutal blow. Ranma's face was a bleeding mess, his shoulders heaving with every breath. Not that Tanizaki's condition was much better; his own body swayed unsteadily as he limped forward, his vision not quite focusing properly, and he could feel that some of his cracked ribs were now outright broken.
Their battle wound between the steel pillars, dueling back and forth across the cavernous room, the advantage swinging one way, then the other. With a ferocious push, Ranma drove Tanizaki back all the way to the edge, where the wall of windows had been. But even as he ran out of room to maneuver Tanizaki stood firm, looking for even the slightest opportunity to strike back and turn the tables.
And he found one. His fist shot out in an uppercut, slamming into Ranma's rib cage and interrupting his momentum. Tanizaki followed that with a spin kick, lifting the boy off his feet and sending him flying backward. Ranma landed on his back, then immediately rolled back up to one knee, his guard raised... but the hit had been a telling one.
For a long moment they remained there, both breathing heavily, marshaling what faltering dregs remained of their strength. They were both well past their limits, and they knew that neither of them could not last much longer. Each breath was agony for Tanizaki, and it was only sheer hate that was keeping him on his feet.
"Just to make sure you understand..." Tanizaki rasped, looking down at his kneeling enemy. "After I kill you... I will kill every last one of your friends up there on the roof. They will all die screaming. They will all die begging for my mercy!"
Ranma shook his head doggedly. "Not gonna happen."
"You cannot stop me," Tanizaki said. "You have nothing left. No more allies to come to your rescue. No more secret techniques to employ."
"Don't need 'em," shot back Ranma. "Not for this. There's only one thing I need to finish you."
As Tanizaki watched, the boy climbed unsteadily back to his feet, his remaining battle aura seething around him with unbreakable determination. "I've learned a lot of different things from a lot of different people as a martial artist," he said. "So many tricks and techniques, I can hardly count 'em all. Some I got from rivals. Some I got from ancient midgets. Some I even made up myself."
"But whatever I learned from any of 'em... it was all built on top of one foundation. The style my dad taught me, growing up on our training trip together. Saotome-style Anything Goes."
Ranma looked Tanizaki right in the eye, his voice thick with emotion. "And you know what the specialty of Saotome-style Anything Goes is, Tanizaki? You know the one thing that my dad designed it to be the best at? The one kind of fight where Saotome Genma made sure it'd have the advantage?"
With a sudden explosion of strength Ranma threw himself forward, charging in at a speed Tanizaki couldn't believe he could still reach. He tried to counter, but Ranma slipped under his punch, catching him in a tackle that carried them both through the broken window and out of the skyscraper.
And as Tanizaki felt gravity take hold with a sickening lurch, pulling them toward the ground spread out far, far below, Ranma gave the answer to his own question.
Ranma felt the cold night air whip at him as they plummeted.
Across from him, Tanizaki lashed out with a kick. But Ranma twisted, angling his body to ride the air currents, and used Tanizaki's leg as a fulcrum to flip himself around into a kick of his own. Tanizaki blocked... but without anything to brace himself against, the impact sent him spinning on a new course.
Which had been Ranma's real aim.
Pushing off his grasp on Tanizaki's leg, Ranma torqued his trajectory to spin into his opponent's blind spot. Tanizaki tried to regain control of his trajectory and match the maneuver... but he was not fast enough. Ranma grabbed Tanizaki's head from behind, then yanked the man toward him as he drove his knee into the back of Tanizaki's skull.
The blow stunned Tanizaki, and Ranma took ruthless advantage. He spun the man to face him and dragged him into a punch that snapped his head around to the left, then switched hands and delivered an equally powerful punch to snap it back the other way. He followed that up by pulling Tanizaki straight toward him, then driving a knee into the man's chest.
Tanizaki tried to recover. But he couldn't break away, couldn't get any distance. They were in Ranma's battlefield now, and he would not let his enemy escape. They continued to fight, tumbling end-over-end through the air, Ranma's dominance only increasing with each strike he landed.
The two of them fell faster and faster, the glass wall of the skyscraper shooting past them in a blur. Ranma grabbed Tanizaki by the back of the head, then slammed him face-first into the side of the building. The glass shattered, not just at the point of impact, but in a continuous line downward as Ranma scraped Tanizaki's face along it, bloody glass shards spraying out in a wake above them.
Eventually Ranma yanked Tanizaki back, only to slam another punch into his face. The man's body cartwheeled uncontrollably, right into a second punch, followed by a third. Tanizaki could no longer put up any real resistance, his limp body battered back and forth as they fell, taking hit after hit after hit.
Below, Ranma could see the ground fast approaching. With another punch he drove Tanizaki even further downward. Then he angled his own descent to bring him closer to the skyscraper wall as it rushed by him. Coiling his legs and aiming himself straight at his opponent, he kicked off the wall as hard as he could, accelerating himself down at Tanizaki with everything he had.
He was a living missile, a blur of red and black, pouring all his strength and momentum into one single punch. He hit Tanizaki like a meteor, crashing him straight into the street beneath them at blistering speed. Their thunderous impact shook the ground, blasting a huge crater where they hit. Ranma felt his fist crumple Tanizaki's rib cage, shattering the bones and driving them deep into the man's lung.
For a long moment all was quiet, save for the echoes of their crash. Ranma knelt over Tanizaki's body, panting for breath. His right arm hung limp, fractured in multiple places from the force of his own strike.
Then Tanizaki convulsed, coughing up blood. He tried to rise, tried to raise a hand to strike at Ranma... but the hand had barely left the ground before it fell back down again, limp. Ranma watched in silence as Tanizaki's eyes shifted frantically back and forth. Trying to think. Trying to strategize. Trying to find some way out.
But it was useless. There were no more moves left to make. No more plans left to fall back on. Ranma saw the awful realization seep ever-so-slowly into Tanizaki's eyes. The understanding that there was simply nothing left he could do.
He looked up at Ranma, managing to force barely-audible words between his blood-splattered lips. "Even... if I die..." he croaked out. "At least... I tried. Tried to reach... for the greatest possible achievements. To claim victory... over a goddess that should have been impossible for me to stand against."
Contempt entered his eyes, and his voice took on an accusing tone. "But... you. Are you really so content to be their lackey? Their pet? Even if you defeat me… you will never even attempt the heights that I have dared to challenge!"
"Says the man bleeding out in a crater," replied Ranma, unimpressed. "And who says I'd never challenge the Sailor Senshi? But if I did... I'd challenge them to an honest match. One we could all enjoy. And go home friends after."
He rose to his feet, looking down at the broken man lying in front of him. "And if it turns out I can't beat Sailor Moon without hurting a bunch of innocent people? Like the kind of scumbag tactics you had to use? Then that ain't no one's fault but my own. Just means I'd need to get stronger. The way I see it... you're the one who took the easy way out."
Ranma shook his head. "Anyone who goes as far as you did? Just because he wanted to win, and he didn't think he could do it any other way? That isn't any kind of strength or bravery at all. Honestly... it's just pathetic."
Tanizaki flinched as though struck. He opened his mouth to reply... but only coughed up more blood, unable to even get words out anymore. All he could do was lay there, helplessly. Ranma watched in silence as Tanizaki's struggles weakened, each breath shallower than the last. Then, finally, Tanizaki's head slumped to one side, his eyes staring vacantly at nothing as his body went still.
Beneda had lost count of how many cycles of compressions and breathing she had performed, concentrating only on her rhythm and the count of compressions within a single cycle. She forced herself not to think about her fears, not to think of what would happen if this didn't work. Everything she had, she focused on the task at hand.
Twenty-six. Twenty-seven. Twenty-eight. Twenty-nine. Thirty.
Her preparations—the pressure points she'd hit before doing this—should have given Sailor Moon a far better chance to resuscitate than she normally would have had. But would it be enough? She had already been in bad shape to begin with.
Nine. Ten. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen.
Beneda glanced at the Silver Crystal, hoping for some supernatural intervention like so many other times before. But the crystal just lay there on the rooftop, damaged and inert. If there was going to be another miracle tonight, it wasn't going to come from cosmic power or ancient magic. This time, if Sailor Moon was to be brought back from death... her only hope lay in a completely mundane skill. Created by mortal ingenuity, passed down over the years from ordinary human to ordinary human, for the simple goal of preserving life.
Eighteen. Nineteen. Twenty. Twenty-one. Twenty-two.
And so Beneda refused to give up. She was an inheritor of that trust now, even though she'd once been an enemy of humanity itself. Even if this was completely beyond her, even if she was on the verge of panic, she would do everything in her power to save her patient.
Twenty-eight. Twenty-nine. Thirty.
The youma kept on pumping Sailor Moon's heart. Kept on forcing air into her lungs. Over and over and over again. Until finally, without warning... the girl began to cough. Beneda pulled back, her whole body shaking with relief as she saw Sailor Moon breathing—weakly, but on her own power.
"Usako!" Tuxedo Kamen held her close, clasping her hand as though he were terrified she might slip away. Beneda, meanwhile, let herself fall backward onto the rooftop, covering her face with her hands as she finally allowed herself to think about just how desperate that gambit had been.
Sailor Moon was far too weak to move on her own power, but eventually she recovered enough to speak in a barely-audible voice as her lover cradled her. "What... happened? I remember... Mamo-chan... and then Tanizaki. And then..."
"Tanizaki hit you with a pressure point attack," Beneda explained, pulling herself back up into a sitting position. "It was tearing you apart, and I couldn't unravel it. So instead, I stopped the flow of your life force in a controlled way. By... well... killing you. Tanizaki's technique lost its hold when your ki circulation stopped, and then I managed to get your heart beating again."
Sailor Moon's eyes widened a bit as she digested this. Beneda, for her part, considered what she'd just said. Then, slowly, she began to giggle. Eventually she had to clamp her hands over her mouth, her shoulders shaking as she fought to control the hysterical sobs of laughter brought on by the fear and the relief and the silly little realization that had just occurred to her.
Both Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Kamen gave her befuddled looks. "What's so funny?" Sailor Moon finally asked.
"It's nothing," the youma told Sailor Moon, wiping tears from her eyes as she brought herself back under some semblance of control. "I just remembered. All of this? All the chaos that's happened between us? All the fighting and the deception and the misunderstandings and everything else? It all started that day at the library, when I failed to kill you."
Then Beneda shook her head, chuckling. "I never imagined that saving your life would be how I'd finally end up fulfilling that mission, after all these years."