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 Six: Best Laid Plans
After checking the clock one last time, Ranma turned to the group of other martial artists who were currently assembled in the yard of the Tendo compound. It was their team of six—minus Konatsu, who was already out spying on Sailor Moon. "Well... it's pretty much time. Everyone ready?"
"Shampoo is being ready for hours, Airen," piped up the Joketsuzoku warrioress. She seemed her usual bubbly self on the surface... though there was something forced about her demeanor that Ranma couldn't quite place. Mousse, standing beside her, simply made a single nod, indicating his preparedness as well. Akane, for her part, got to her feet, tightening the belt of the karate gi that she was wearing without a word.
"Let us sally forth!" exclaimed Kuno, flourishing his bokken for dramatic effect. "We shall prove the rightness of our cause on the field of honorable combat!" Ranma stifled a wince; Kuno was the one he was least happy about being here. When he'd originally shot off his mouth about the seven-on-six fight he'd expected Ryouga to fill that position. It had only been later on that he'd realized the problem of dealing with the Outer Senshi. Ryouga, of course, had jumped at the chance to settle things with Sailor Uranus, and Kuno had been a last-minute substitute.
Ranma had no worries about Mousse, Konatsu or Shampoo being able to handle themselves, and the Senshi's own misconceptions would keep Akane safe from any real danger. But while Kuno—like the rest of them—had grown dramatically in his abilities over the years, Ranma wasn't sure whether the kendoist had improved enough to win against the also-improved Senshi.
Would it be pushing their luck to try and pass Kuno off as under his mind control too? At least then the Senshi wouldn't be trying to kill the idiot, whereas Ranma expected them to be trying their best to do him in. It probably wouldn't work, though. Kuno was far too proud to hide behind something like that for safety. There was no way he'd play along.
The pigtailed fighter sighed. He'd just have to keep a close eye on Kuno during this whole thing. Probably end up saving the moron's life before this was over, no doubt. Still, they needed six, and he was better than nothing.
"All right then," Ranma said, as he turned to look in the direction of the warehouse, readying himself for a run. "Let's go."
Step by step, the now-transformed Inner Senshi, along with Tuxedo Kamen, Luna and Artemis, made their way toward the appointed place for the showdown. No one said all that much, mostly because there was little need for it. Heading into battle, fighting side-by-side for the fate of the world... how many times had they done it now? They walked in a loose formation, alert for any threats, watching each others' backs with the ease of long familiarity.
They did go over the plan again on the way there, simple though it was. Cover Sailor Moon long enough for her to use her Silver Moon Crystal Power Kiss. Get any of Ranma's slaves that it freed to safety. And then try and take down whoever was left, non-lethally if possible. Privately, Sailor Mercury had her doubts whether Ranma could be made to give up by just capturing him, but she was willing to try for Sailor Moon's sake.
And either way, they would definitely have to hold back on the strength of their attacks at first. Ranma and Ryouga were pretty clearly in charge, but other than that they didn't know for sure who was mind-controlled and who wasn't.
They first caught sight of the warehouse as they rounded the corner of another nearby building and it came into view. Sailor Jupiter made as though to head toward it, but Sailor Mercury raised a cautioning hand. "Wait," she said. "This is a battleground they picked ahead of time, and they've already tried sneak attacks on us before. Let me scan for any traps or ambushes first." Sailor Jupiter nodded, and the blue-haired Senshi proceeded to lower her visor and take out her Mercury Computer, analyzing the building with every means at her disposal.
Her scan didn't show any sign of traps or hazards, or anything else out of the ordinary. Five humanoid wireframe figures did appear superimposed on her view of the warehouse, causing her to frown. Only five? she thought. Where is the sixth? Unless... She looked down at her computer again, switching its mode to a wide-scale overlay of the surrounding area. Immediately her eyes widened. There was an extra reading nearby—one that was not part of their group.
She whirled around, sweeping across the buildings behind them with her visor. And there, lurking on the rooftops out of direct line-of-sight, was another wireframe figure that had been stalking them from behind. Her finger shot out, indicating its location. "Up there! One of them is on the rooftops!"
Everything happened at once. The Senshi whirled, even as the figure jumped into view and hurled something down at them—some kind of bomb, which detonated to fill the area with a thick, vision-obscuring haze. But this time the Senshi were forewarned of their attacker's presence, and they'd already had experience with the noxious concoctions that these foes used. Before the bomb even landed they were already scattering clear of its impact point in blurs of red, blue, green, orange, pink, white and black.
The attacking figure dove down from the rooftops into the cloud, shot through it with incredible speed, and then burst back out the other side. With her visor active, Sailor Mercury was the only one who could track the figure through the smoke. The Senshi of Water prepared to unleash her magic, but by the time she had it ready the figure was back on the rooftops. And she—for it was Ranma's female ninja once again—was holding Luna by the scruff of the neck in one hand, and Artemis in the other.
"Luna! Artemis!" cried out Sailor Moon, fear for the two small felines filling her expression. "Why are you doing this? We're here just like we agreed! Why are you attacking them?"
The kunoichi raised an eyebrow. "The agreement was for a seven-on-six battle," she replied calmly. "Ranma already gave you the advantage of numbers. But you show up with nine instead?" She raised the two cats in front of her for emphasis. "Even generosity has limits."
Her matter-of-fact explanation for the abduction prompted a look of disbelief from Sailor Moon. "That's... I... You're counting them against our fighter limit?" she asked, momentarily at a loss. So were the rest of the Senshi, in fact. Against superhuman foes who could move faster than the eye could follow and fling cars around like baseballs, it had never even occurred to them that having the two small cats in attendance would be grounds for objection.
"They won't be harmed," the ninja assured them. "And they'll be returned after this is over. But until then, the fight will happen according to the rules we agreed on." And with that the kunoichi disappeared in a flicker of speed, leaving the group of flummoxed Senshi in her wake.
Sailor Venus was the first to snap herself out of it. "Those jerks!" she exclaimed. "They could have just asked us if they thought it was so important! Why are they so hung up about Artemis and Luna being here anyway?"
Her words made Sailor Mercury frown. "That's... a very good question, actually..." she said. "And this isn't the first time, either. Do you remember what happened the first time we faced them? It was exactly the same. One of the first things they did was to go after Luna specifically and remove her from the area."
The Sailor Senshi exchanged puzzled glances with each other, before Sailor Chibi-moon spoke up. "But... why?"
"I don't know yet," Sailor Mercury admitted, her expression thoughtful. "But still, I can't help thinking that it's significant somehow..."
Sailor Pluto watched invisibly from her perch atop the pile of crates, her eyes shifting from one enemy to the next—five of them present so far.
Ranma himself was standing at the center of the warehouse with two girls flanking him, one on either side. One was an exotic beauty, clad in a Chinese dress, with long hair running down to her waist, while the other was more on the plain side, her hair short-cropped and her clothing a simple karate uniform. A young man wearing a hakama and wielding a bokken was standing off to one side, while another young man in flowing white robes stood off to the other.
Even though no one else could see her, she kept her expression emotionless and inscrutable. But beneath that impassive mask, thoughts of Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune ate away at her. Sailor Saturn was on her way, and there was an outside chance that she might arrive in time... but considering how long it had already been, Sailor Pluto knew that it was far more likely to be over by the time she arrived. She would doubtless destroy any enemy forces still on hand, but such vengeance would not bring back her teammates.
A sudden urge to leap down from her perch and attack Ranma herself seized her, but she suppressed it with cold practicality. The only outward sign of the internal struggle was an almost imperceptible tightening of the hand holding her Garnet Rod. She was the princess's backup. She could not afford to show herself carelessly. No matter how much she might wish to. There would be time for that later.
Eventually, the sixth and final member of their team appeared, the female ninja. Unexpectedly, she was carrying a large, squirming burlap sack. The Senshi of Time soon realized—based on the angry protestations coming from inside it—that the sack contained none other than Artemis and Luna. The kunoichi wasted no time in taking that sack over to an open wooden crate and dumping it in.
The white-robed young man came over to assist, pulling a hammer and nails out of his sleeves and nailing the lid onto the crate. Once it was secure, they slid the crate off to a far corner of the warehouse, and then rejoined the rest of their group, the ninja taking a perch high in the rafters.
It was not long before the Inner Senshi entered, walking through the same door that the ninja had left open and taking up a position there, keeping their distance from their opponents. Sailor Moon was at the center, with the rest of her team covering her on every side. "All right, we're here like you wanted!" she called out.
"Most excellent!" exclaimed the bokken-wielding fighter. "Truly, this shall be a duel worthy of its noble participants! Let us face each other without delay, on this glorious battlefield!" Most of the Inner Senshi looked askance at the bombastic outburst, except for Tuxedo Kamen, who for some reason was rubbing his forehead, as though to stave off an impending headache.
"There's nothing glorious about fighting each other like this," responded Sailor Moon, her voice firm. "But no matter what, I am going to rescue everyone from your control, Ranma."
The pigtailed fighter responded to her declaration with a cocky smile. "Take your best shot."
And it was clear that was exactly what the Senshi intended to do. Emerald light had already begun gathering at Sailor Jupiter's tiara, while golden light was swirling in the air around Sailor Venus as she raised her hand high. Fire and water manifested in preparation around Sailor Mars and Sailor Mercury, while Tuxedo Kamen took the front-most position of the formation, with Sailor Moon at the center.
Then the battle began.
The Sailor Senshi—except for Sailor Moon—were going to be fighting defensively, that much was obvious to Ranma. If his plan was going to work they needed to create an opening for Akane and Shampoo to exploit.
Charging their formation head on would be near-suicide. He'd seen the sheer volume of firepower the Senshi could fill the air with when they put their minds to it, and unlike the previous day there would be no convenient gap between buildings to duck out of the way. If the Senshi all unleashed their combined attacks at him while he was trying to get close there was no way he would escape intact.
Fortunately, throwing himself bodily into the kill zone wouldn't be necessary this time.
The instant the Senshi started to charge their attacks Mousse plunged both his hands deep into his sleeves. Then he flung them outward, releasing dozens upon dozens of bombs, their fuses hissing as they spun through the air toward the clustered Senshi. They weren't overly dangerous—mostly just smokebombs, flashbangs and minor explosives—but the Senshi had no way of knowing that until they went off.
The girls reacted to the attack with impressive speed, diving clear even as Mousse's bombs began to rain down where they had just been standing and detonate. Sailor Jupiter landed in a roll that brought her back to one knee, her eyes flashing as she retaliated with a storm of her small green energy bursts. They shot from her tiara with machine-gun speeds, but at the last second Mousse leapt straight up to the ceiling in a flash of white. The ground beneath him exploded from Sailor Jupiter's barrage, even as he tossed some more bombs down at her in reply.
Sailor Mars turned to assist, aiming to catch Mousse in a crossfire... but before she had the chance Konatsu plummeted down at her from the rafters like a hawk. She leapt backward to avoid him, changing targets in midair. Eight flaming rings burst from her fingertips, slicing toward her attacker from every angle. "Burning Mandala!"
The ninja twisted and weaved for all he was worth... but he couldn't completely avoid them all, not when fired from point blank range. One clipped his side, the fire igniting the fabric of his kunoichi uniform into a searing blaze. But he didn't falter in his attack, continuing his charge until he drove a kick into the airborne Senshi's chest.
The blow sent her flying back into a pile of crates, smashing through them, while Konatsu slapped with both hands at his side in an attempt to extinguish the flames. By the time he succeeded, his opponent had climbed back out of the wooden wreckage. Both of them now wore pained grimaces.
Ranma, however, had been quicker on the attack than any of them. He'd anticipated which direction the Senshi would dodge the bombs and launched himself into Tuxedo Kamen's path, appearing there before the masked man even landed and greeting him with an uppercut.
The magical warrior deflected it—barely—but Ranma did not let up. He hammered away with a continuous rain of punches, kicks and elbow strikes, testing his opponent's defense as Tuxedo Kamen parried with his cane in a desperate attempt to fend him off. Keep in close, keep him on the retreat, Ranma thought. If I can time this just right...
Behind Tuxedo Kamen, Ranma could see where Sailor Moon and the little pink-haired Sailor Chibi-moon had landed. Sailor Moon was even now raising her scepter, concentration on her face as she readied her big attack. Ranma cranked up the pressure on his assault, his strikes coming so fast as to be invisible to the naked eye.
Now! He feinted high, drawing the man's guard up, then came in low, his fist swinging in a blow that would blast the masked man right back into the girl he was protecting and leaving them both wide open—
—but then Ranma pulled his punch, instead throwing himself off at an angle in a one-handed cartwheel. The next instant, a chain of golden heart-links swung down from above, narrowly missing him. Sailor Venus lost no time in whipping the chain at him again, its swirling coils filling the air with serpentine speed. Worse, Sailor Moon was almost ready to fire. The now-familiar light was gathering ever brighter at her scepter's head, and he knew he was almost out of time. "Silver... Moon..."
Ranma's hands shot out as he finished his cartwheel, grabbing hold of the heart-shaped links and yanking the weapon in a slight adjustment of its course so that it hooked behind the tuxedo-clad fighter. Ranma then wrenched with all his might, using the chain to hook Tuxedo Kamen behind the knees and sweep his legs out from under him, depositing the man on his back.
Just in time. The opening came at the perfect moment for Shampoo to rocket in, trampling over the prone Tuxedo Kamen, dodging a stream of pink hearts from Sailor Chibi-moon, all to deliver a leaping kick to Sailor Moon's scepter. The attack tore the weapon from the blonde girl's hands, the light dissipating as it bounced end-over-end across the floor.
Shampoo was about to follow that up with another kick—this one aimed at the girl herself—but a cry of "Mercury Aqua Rhapsody!" and a raging torrent of water forced the Joketsuzoku warrioresss to hurl herself frantically away. She had to scramble with every bit of speed she could muster to prevent even a drop from hitting her Jusenkyo-cursed body.
Ranma, meanwhile, was having problems as well. He'd used Venus's chain to trip Tuxedo Kamen... but now that he tried to drop it he found that he couldn't. The magical weapon had twisted around his arm, slithering snake-like up it, until it began to wind around his torso, his arms, and down toward his legs. He struggled, but the coils just kept shifting and extending, hampering his movements more and more.
Nor did Tuxedo Kamen let the opportunity slip. He rolled back to his feet and threw a flurry of roses—an attack that Ranma knew he wouldn't be able to dodge in his current state.
"Strike! Strike strike strike strike strike!"
Spikes of air pressure from Kuno's bokken hit the roses in mid-flight, snapping several of them. The kendoist wasn't fast enough to hit them all; two still got through, but Ranma twisted so that one deflected off the very chain that was binding him, then caught the final one between his teeth. A moment later Akane slammed into Sailor Venus from behind, knocking the Senshi sprawling, and the golden chain relaxed enough for Ranma to pull himself free.
Even as he extricated himself, Sailor Mercury was still trying to chase down the fleeing Shampoo with her water cannon—and was coming much closer to success than she herself realized, considering that even the slightest splash would take her target out of the fight. Tuxedo Kamen lunged toward Akane, driving her away from the prone Sailor Venus with a series of punishing cane strikes. He clearly had the upper hand, and although Kuno was rushing to assist, Sailor Venus was climbing back up as well. At least Sailor Moon's purifying attack had been shut down for the moment.
...or not, as Sailor Moon simply extended her hand, concentrated for a moment, and her scepter reappeared in her palm in a flash of light. What, they can just re-summon their weapons if they lose them? Ranma thought, as he kicked away the last of the chain. Damn. This is gonna be harder than I thought.
He had to act fast. It was obvious that the matchups they had fallen into were all wrong. If he didn't do something this wasn't going to end well. Shampoo was in by far the most trouble, so he started there, snapping off a Moko Takabisha at Sailor Mercury. The spherical ki blast shot across the warehouse floor, hitting the Sailor Senshi from the side and blasting her into a head-over-heels tumble. Not nearly enough to keep her down—not as tough as these girls were—but it had certainly interrupted her attack. "I'll handle her!" Ranma shouted over to Shampoo. "You help Akane and Kuno!"
The Joketsuzoku girl nodded once, knowing all too well what a poor match she was for a water user. She ran over to join that part of the fray, drawing her twin spherical maces as she charged toward Tuxedo Kamen. Ranma, for his part, turned back to Sailor Mercury, who was already on her feet again.
Well, I gotta keep her focused on attacking me instead of Shampoo or Mousse, he thought. Accordingly, he employed one of his particular skills, one that was very well suited toward that goal. "Hey, looks like you've been improving over the past few years!" he called out, giving her an arrogant smirk. "Last time all you could shoot was mist, but now you've got a squirt gun to go with your spray bottle! Man, I'm really in trouble now!"
For many of his usual foes, something along those lines would have been more than enough to incite an immediate attack. But Sailor Mercury merely regarded him with an evaluating look. A slight narrowing of her blue eyes was the only sign that she'd even heard his taunt. Ranma was left with the uncomfortable impression that she'd seen through exactly what he'd been trying to do.
Still, even if he hadn't succeeded in provoking her to recklessness, she couldn't turn her back on him either without drawing an attack. Instead she crossed her arms in front of her, water swirling through the air into a point in front of her, which she then released in an enormous wave of countless small blue spheres. "Shabon Spray Freezing!"
Ranma made a flying dive, sliding into cover behind a group of crates. The blue spheres hit everywhere, not with destructive force, but coating everything they touched in ice. The Anything-Goes heir continued to run and dodge, drawing her fire as best he could, ricocheting like a pinball from wall to support beam to rafter to crate to catwalk to ceiling and back to the floor again, staying one step ahead of the swarm of freezing attacks that thickened the air, hounding his every movement.
Kuno, meanwhile, was facing off against Sailor Venus. The Senshi's chain whipped around her in an intricate defensive pattern, moving like a living thing as the two of them darted back and forth, exchanging attacks. The kendoist lunged in at her with an overhead slash, which she blocked by grabbing a length of her weapon in both hands and holding it high.
No sooner had the weapons clashed together than one end of the chain shot up to wrap around Kuno's waist and fling him around to crash down through one of the warehouse's wooden support beams. Ranma could detect no real killing intent from her, though, so it seemed like the Sailor Senshi were playing this even more compassionately than he had expected.
Nearby, Shampoo fought tooth and nail against Tuxedo Kamen. Her chui maces spun in dizzying patterns as they battered against the masked man's cane, the constant crack of weapon against weapon filling the air. She was holding her own against him far better than Akane had, though he still seemed to have a slight edge. Still, her assault was preventing him from assisting Sailor Moon, leaving Akane free to mount her own offensive.
Good, thought Ranma, as he continued to dodge. Just gotta keep the rest of the Senshi busy, and this fight is in the bag. The Moon girl might have a lot of power, but she's no fist-fighter, and there's no way in hell she'll have the time to pull off that healing attack as long as Akane keeps up the pressure. It's just a matter of time now.
A smile crossed the pigtailed fighter's face. Looks like things are actually going according to plan for once...
With an eerily silent motion, Zhang swung himself down from the rooftop of the warehouse and into the old wooden building through a small hole in the structure that he had identified in his earlier scouting of the premises. He'd stayed at a distance until both the Sailor Senshi and their opponents had entered the building, and allowed time for the battle to begin in earnest. He was well aware of the magitech scanning capabilities that the Senshi possessed, and so he had made sure that there was nothing amiss for them to detect until they were otherwise occupied.
The assassin slipped noiselessly through the rafters, melding with the shadows as he observed the battle raging below. He took up a position high in the corner of the ceiling, where a protrusion in the wall helped to further conceal him from sight. Thus situated, he pulled a small communications device designed for covert operations out of the sleeve of his robes, inserting the earpiece into his ear and attacking the throat microphone to his throat. "This is Zhang," he murmured. "I'm in position and observing the fight right now."
"Excellent." Kazuo's measured voice came through the earpiece with a slight tinny edge to it. "Doctor Metzger assures me that everything is in place for his test. Ekim will reduce the thaumaturgic inhibitors on Unit Zero to fifty percent the moment you give the signal."
"Hold off for a bit," was Zhang's response. "Things are just getting started here. I'm sure we can get a better opportunity if we wait."
Then the assassin smiled, as he continued to observe the combatants below. "Besides. It wouldn't hurt to get a feel for how these new players stack up."
"Pink Sugar Heart Attack!"
A stream of pink hearts shot toward Akane as she ran, but she dove forward into a roll, causing them to blast apart a nearby crate instead. As she rolled, she snatched one of the larger pieces of debris out of the air and threw it back at Sailor Chibi-moon. The high-velocity chunk of wood hit the small stick that the young girl had been shooting her attack from, knocking it from her hands and sending it spinning across the warehouse floor, which gave Akane a respite in which she could focus on Sailor Moon undistracted.
She lunged after the retreating blonde Senshi with attack after attack. But the other girl was deceptively fast, and Akane could tell that she had the raw, practiced experience that only came from years of life-and-death battles—which was nothing to sneeze at, even if she didn't have Akane's formal training. The Senshi ducked, weaved, sometimes even blocking with the scepter she carried. Still, she had nothing resembling a chance to go on the offensive, and Akane was methodically pushing her toward a corner where she'd be out of room to move.
Then, from behind her, Akane heard the sound of an impact and a cry of pain. She glanced backward, just in time to see Shampoo flying through the air straight at her, courtesy of Tuxedo Kamen's elongating cane.
Akane leaned out of the way, her hand shooting out toward the Chinese girl, clasping onto the arm that Shampoo had simultaneously extended in her direction. Akane spun, whipping Shampoo in a circle around herself in order to hurl her right back at Tuxedo Kamen again with all of Akane's strength adding to her velocity. The masked man didn't react to the sudden reversal fast enough, which meant that it was his turn to go careening back as Shampoo drove her foot into his chest in a flying kick.
But the momentary distraction had allowed Sailor Moon to escape the corner that Akane had been trying to drive her into. The blonde Senshi leapt upward, rebounding off a wall of crates and landing on one of the catwalks running overhead. Akane jumped after her, grabbing onto the catwalk railing with both hands and using that grip to flip herself over it in a windmill kick that managed to clip Sailor Moon in the head. As the Senshi stumbled back Akane completed her flip, landing on the catwalk herself and lunging after her target.
Then Akane's danger sense flared, and she threw herself backward instead as another stream of pink hearts crashed into the space she would have occupied. The pink Senshi had re-summoned her wand.
The glowing hearts tore through the catwalk in a spray of splinters, and the broken ends of the bridge tipped into an earthward plunge. Sailor Moon quickly made a flying leap across to an adjoining catwalk, and Akane followed, the previous bridge impacting with a crash behind them.
A moment later Sailor Chibi-moon launched herself up there as well, swinging herself over the railing and into a defensive position between Akane and Sailor Moon, brandishing her wand. She was followed by Tuxedo Kamen, who landed on the opposite side of Akane, trapping the Tendo girl between them.
Before Akane had the chance to worry about what had happened to Shampoo, the Joketsuzoku warrioress also leapt up to join them, landing between Akane and Tuxedo Kamen. Akane noticed with concern that the other girl was breathing hard, and one of her chui was missing. "He giving you trouble?" she murmured out of the corner of her mouth.
"Is only getting one or two lucky hits," Shampoo groused, taking a stance as she faced down the masked warrior. "And luck not last. Akane just concentrate on Moon-girl."
Akane nodded. "All right," she said. "Sounds good to me."
Zhang watched intently as the battle continued to play out, raging on two levels now. It was intriguing indeed. Among the martial artists, the young woman fighting in the upper section of the warehouse didn't seem to be as dangerous as the others in her group, but it was she who were pushing the offensive on Sailor Moon, while the others were clearly fighting a delaying action.
But more than anything else, the assassin found his attention being drawn back to the young man in the white robes who was facing off against Sailor Jupiter. There was something about him that nagged at Zhang, a peculiar sense of... familiarity that he couldn't quite place. Have I encountered him somewhere before? the assassin wondered. It feels like I have somehow, but I'd think that I would remember meeting such a skilled fighter...
Zhang's eyes bored into the robed warrior, intently dissecting his every move. As he did, the sense of strangeness only increased. It was faint—almost lost in a sea of other influences—but Zhang thought he could detect traces of his own style in this unknown fighter. But that's impossible, he thought. There shouldn't be any other practitioners of the Four Arts left, and certainly none that I don't know about.
The assassin looked closer, and suddenly his eyes widened in delighted recognition. Oh! Of course! He's one of those two boys, from all those years ago. No wonder I didn't recognize him. He's come a long way from the sniveling little runt he was back then...
Zhang continued to watch. This must be some quirk of fate, he thought. To encounter someone from those days—and all the way over here in Japan, no less. Until this moment I'd completely forgotten about him.
Then a smile crossed the assassin's features. Though I doubt that he can say the same about me...
"Jupiter Oak Evo—"
Mousse lunged forward, twisting his shoulders as he thrust his arm toward the brown-haired Senshi. A long bamboo staff shot from his sleeve, hissing through the air between them to impact into Sailor Jupiter's forehead as she tried to charge up her attack. Her head snapped backward a little, her balance thrown off, which allowed Mousse to catch the staff on the ricochet and spin, using it to catch her at the ankles and sweep her legs out from under her.
The tall Senshi managed to plant her palms on the ground, turning her fall into a handspring as she flipped away. Mousse didn't pursue, but simply held his staff in a loose guard position, the two opponents slowly circling each other, evaluating each other. The girl's muscles were tense, her heart beating fast, and he could hear both exertion and frustration in its pulsating rhythm.
She was evaluating him, trying to find an opening through which to land a solid attack, something she hadn't been able to do so far. This one has some martial arts experience, he noted. She had a notably larger ki aura than the rest of her team, which made her particularly easy for him to distinguish, even without the benefit of sight.
To all outward appearances the fight was well in hand. His job was to stall, and that was exactly what he was doing. And yet... there was an uneasiness that would not leave him alone. It was faint, inexplicable, but bone-deep nonetheless. Something was off. And now—with the reprieve granted by Sailor Jupiter pausing to regroup—he realized what it was.
Someone was watching him.
Whoever it was, they were concealing their presence with incredible skill. Mousse doubted that anyone else here could have noticed it. But Mousse's blindness had forced him to sharpen his other senses to the point where they could entirely take the place of his vision, relying on them to do so day in and day out. And that included his ki detection. While Ranma or Ryouga might edge him out in terms of overall fighting skill, in terms of a martial artist's "sixth sense" there was no one in Nerima who could even come close to Mousse anymore.
Exhaling softly, the blind master expanded his area of focus out from the immediate battle, searching the warehouse for the precise location of the spy. Now that he understood the nature of his uneasiness, tracking it down was not overly difficult. Someone was lurking up in the rafters, off in a far corner of the ceiling.
The hidden weapons master's mind raced. Who could it be? An ally of the Sailor Senshi? It seemed doubtful; whoever it was, it was clearly a martial artist from the feel of the ki suppression technique they were using. But then who was it? Some ally Saotome had brought in, without telling anyone else? That didn't seem right either.
And why did the presence seem so subtly, inexplicably familiar to Mousse?
He was so caught up in the mystery that when Sailor Jupiter lunged in with a vicious flurry of punches she very nearly clobbered him. The hidden weapons master backpedaled, his staff spinning back and forth as he deflected her strikes. She went for a kick, which he caught at the ankle just before it impacted against his jaw. He then used that grip to shove her backward, sending her stumbling a little as she fought to regain her balance.
Deciding to focus on the immediate battle for now, Mousse pulled his main sensory focus back to his immediate surroundings as the fight started to heat up again. But he made sure to keep monitoring the mysterious watcher with all the attention he could spare. He didn't know what was going on here... but he had a very bad feeling about it.
There were not many things to keep you occupied, Ryouga reflected, when you were stuck up on a random rooftop with your only company being two captured enemies who hated your guts.
Even Ukyo was no longer around for conversation. Her knee had started to feel a bit better, and she had decided she was fit enough to hobble off at least far enough to find a pay phone. The sooner they could contact their friends back in Nerima, the sooner they could arrange someone to come and help them. It was a good idea in the long term, of course, but it left Ryouga with nothing to do but sit around and endure the endless glares from the two Outer Senshi.
Not that he was all that interested in making conversation with a pair of jerks like them, any more than they were with him. Still, the silence did wear on, and he could tell that the blonde one was bristling. Eventually he sighed and glanced over at Sailor Uranus. "Something you want to say?"
"You think you've won," the Senshi bit out. "You haven't. And don't bother trying to use us as hostages against the princess. We'd rather bite our own tongues than help you like that!"
Ryouga rolled his eyes. "I'll keep that in mind," he told them dryly. "Not like it'll matter any, since Ranma is dealing with the rest of the Senshi right now."
"He won't succeed," put in Sailor Neptune, twisting her head to look back at Ryouga as well. "I don't know what kind of impression you got of the Sailor Senshi when you fought them during the Dark Kingdom incident, but it's woefully out of date. There's no way you can win."
"I think we're up to date enough," shot back Ryouga, now annoyed. He leveled a finger at the chained Senshi as he spoke. "We obviously managed you two just fine, and Ranma got a pretty good feel for the rest of the Senshi yesterday. So as far as I can see—"
His voice broke off as, without warning, his danger sense howled at him. There was no time for conscious thought, only instinctual reaction. His body launched itself backward, even as a flash of purple and white impacted onto the rooftop between him and the captured Senshi. Something slashed through the air at him, and even with all his speed he could not avoid it completely. Its tip sliced through his shirt, inflicting a shallow cut across his chest. He landed in an off-balance stumble, but quickly regained his footing while at the same time regarding the fuku-clad girl who had interposed herself protectively between him and his injured "hostages."
The most surprising thing was just how young she was. This Sailor Senshi now facing him wasn't as old as the others—around fifteen would be his guess. Her sailor seifuku was white and purple, her hair was short-cropped around her head, and held out in front of her was a long, menacing glaive, its tip stained red with Ryouga's blood. Looking at that glaive, memories of what Beneda had told them earlier that day came flooding back to Ryouga, giving him a pretty good idea of just who it was that he was facing.
And she looked pissed.
"What are you doing here?" asked Sailor Uranus, looking up at her rescuer. "What happened at the warehouse? Is the princess all right?"
The girl turned, glancing over her shoulder, and made three blindingly-fast swings with her blade. The steel chains binding the other Senshi fell away, sliced cleanly through. "Sailor Pluto is watching over her for now," the young girl explained. "I came to rescue you."
Ryouga laughed. He couldn't help himself. What, Sailor Pluto too? he thought in disbelief. Guess those old youma legends weren't as reliable as Beneda thought they were. And what was worse, all four of these Outer Senshi seemed intent on ignoring the terms of Ranma's showdown... which did not bode well for any of his friends there.
Especially if he let Sailor Saturn return to join that fight.
"Aren't you getting ahead of yourselves?" he called out, starting to crack his knuckles as he did so. "You don't get to go after Ranma's group unless you go through me first."
It was more bravado than he truly felt, but despite everything he figured he had a good chance. He already knew he could take Sailor Uranus, and now both she and Sailor Neptune were injured. More importantly, staying in close quarters with them might well prevent Sailor Saturn from being able to attack him with the mammoth destructive power that Beneda had told him about.
Sailor Uranus pulled herself to her feet, as did Sailor Neptune, both wincing from the damage they'd taken during their fights. Seeing this, Sailor Saturn reached back and touched both of them. Then, after a second or two of concentration, a warm purple light gathered on each hand, and within moments any bruises or cuts had disappeared. Wha...? he thought, his eyes going wide. She has healing powers too? On top of everything else?
Now entirely restored, the Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune took up flanking positions on either side of Sailor Saturn as the three of them faced down Ryouga together. He swallowed, but he refused to even think of running. Not when he knew what the next stop of these three would be.
All right Hibiki, he told himself. Now it's really time to show what you're made of...
Relief flooded through Sailor Saturn as her teammates took their places on either side of her, dispelling some of the desperate worry that had been her constant companion during the race there. Despite Sailor Pluto's warning, both Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune had still been alive, and she'd been able to rescue them safely from the Dark Lord holding them prisoner.
"So what's the plan?" asked Sailor Uranus. "You heard what he said; he's not going to let us past without a fight."
"We should attack together," Sailor Neptune urged. "The three of us can definitely defeat him."
Sailor Saturn regarded the young man facing them, their gazes locking as they took each other's measure. "...no," she said at length. "No. I'll take him on alone. You two hurry and support Sailor Pluto. I won't let him stop you."
Sailor Neptune frowned. "Are you sure? Wouldn't it be better to finish him off right now, with everything we can bring to bear?"
"That's exactly what I intend to do," Sailor Saturn quietly explained. "I saw how fast he dodged my first attack. Against an opponent as maneuverable as he is... I'm worried you would become shields for him more than anything else. Fighting in the middle of the city like this will already limit the level of attacks I can use. But the fewer people who are nearby... the less I'll need to hold back."
Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune exchanged glances at that. Then Sailor Uranus nodded. "Beat him," she said, clasping the younger girl quickly on the shoulder. Then she and Sailor Neptune jumped away, leaving Sailor Saturn and the Dark Lord standing alone on the rooftop, looking at each other.
The young Senshi raised the Silence Glaive into a ready position in front of her, pointed directly at Ryouga. When she spoke it was calm, but filled with absolute determination. "You have attacked my princess, attacked my friends, and attacked my world," she said, her words as quiet and final as the grave. "And I will not permit harm to any of them. If you are so determined to fight us, then in the name of Saturn, I will strike you down."
A humorless smile was the Dark Lord's only response. "We'll see."
Her warning given, Sailor Saturn wasted no further time in talking. The curved blade at the end of her glaive began to glow with magical energy as she charged it with her power. Ryouga immediately burst into motion, rocketing toward her in an attempt to reach her before she could fire.
Sailor Saturn threw herself sideways in a burst of her own speed, launching herself out into the air from the rooftop. The Dark Lord's fingers missed her by centimeters as he tried without success to grab her. She twisted in midair, tracking her opponent's movement as he shot past, then released her attack the instant it was ready. "Silence Cannon!"
The backwash from her blast increased her velocity even more, as a beam of consuming magic the size of a city bus exploded from her glaive. It obliterated a chunk of the roof on its path to vanish off into the sky, but Ryouga had somehow launched himself into an all-out dive just before it had hit him. He landed in a roll, pulling five headbands off his head as he tumbled. As he came out of his roll and back to his feet he threw them like boomerangs, spinning in at different angles, targeting her glaive in an attempt to knock it from her hands.
The Senshi met the five incoming projectiles with five quick slashes of her weapon, cutting them in half to flutter harmlessly into the gap between the buildings. Then Sailor Saturn landed, her feet slamming down onto a new rooftop, her heels carving a trench down its entire length as she bled off the momentum from both her leap and her Silence Cannon. All the way she was gathering her power again, and when she finally ground to a stop she proceeded to wind up and deliver a mighty swing that sent a horizontal slash of energy sweeping out across the rooftops toward Ryouga. "Silence Cut!"
The young fighter dashed directly toward the oncoming attack, making a huge leap at the last second that both cleared the slash and sent him hurtling toward Sailor Saturn's new position. There was not enough time to charge another blast, so instead the Senshi spun the glaive in her hands, drawing the weapon back as far as she could and then hurling it like a spear at the oncoming Dark Lord. The air echoed with the crack as the Silence Glaive shattered the sound barrier, vanishing from sight as it shot toward Ryouga's center of mass.
The Dark Lord slammed his hands together in front of himself, clamping down with all his strength on the projectile. He managed to halt it just before it impaled him, the sheer force of the impact arresting a good amount of his forward momentum. Sailor Saturn was already moving, crossing the rooftop in an eyeblink and launching herself skyward to intercept her enemy.
Ryouga was gripping the business end of the Silence Glaive with both hands, holding it by the haft just before the blade, his arms stretched out awkwardly so as not to stab himself. Sailor Saturn grabbed the other end as she hurtled up toward him, her momentum sending them both higher as he fought to avoid being skewered. She used that, whipping her weapon—and the Dark Lord attached to the other end—around in a wide, midair circle.
The motion flung Ryouga bodily above her, and then back earthward with such force that he lost his tenuous grip. He plummeted the two stories to the street below in a streak of black and yellow, cratering the concrete where he hit.
"Silence Wall." Sailor Saturn whispered, and a semitransparent barrier of magical energy manifested in the air directly above her. As the last of her upward momentum began to fade she made an acrobatic twist, hitting the Silence Wall feet-first in an upside-down crouch, looking beneath her as Ryouga's body crashed into the ground. The blade of her weapon was brightly glowing; she had been charging it from the moment her fingers had touched it again.
With all the force her legs and gravity could provide, Sailor Saturn exploded off her Silence Wall in an all-out earthward dive. The wind tore at her face as her glaive carved a blinding streak through the air, aiming down at Ryouga's prone form. There was no time for the Dark Lord to get to his feet and dodge. She was certain of it.
But instead of taking the time to stand up again, Ryouga simply tapped his finger into the ground right next to him. The street exploded at his touch, blasting him sideways through the air in an uncontrolled spin. That allowed him to twist enough to plant a single leg under him, and he dove away headlong.
Then the Silence Glaive impacted, swung down by its wielder into the earth where Ryouga had been lying moments before, and annihilation burst forth from it. Concrete disintegrated. The nearby windows in all the surrounding houses shattered simultaneously from the shockwave. All around Sailor Saturn an enormous pillar of light erupted skyward, raging around her as the fury of her attack spent itself.
When her vision cleared, the Senshi was kneeling, glaive still in the striking position, at the center of a circular crater more than twice as deep as she was tall, stretching from one side of the road to the other. Slowly she lifted her head, looking up to where Ryouga was pulling himself back to his feet just past the crater's edge.
She stood as well. That attack had failed, but she was unconcerned. He had only barely escaped. It was just a matter of time.
And more to the point, right now he was no longer standing on top of houses with people inside them.
She raised her glaive, holding it high as she poured power into it, even more than before. The Dark Lord started to back away. Perhaps he sensed the scale of what was about to come. When her attack was ready, she intoned two words before releasing it.
An enormous locus of pale purple energy materialized high in the sky, and began to unleash huge bolts of destructive power from above, hammering down saturation fire that filled the street below. The Dark Lord leapt backward, zigging, zagging, ducking and leaping as destruction poured down around him. Each bolt that struck did so with the force of a bomb, leaving gaping craters in the road and filling the air with flying chunks of concrete.
Sailor Saturn jumped out of the crater, charging straight into the pounding devastation to attack the Dark Lord herself. She weaved through her bombardment, slipping between the blasts as they detonated, while stabbing and slashing at her foe. The two combatants spun and lunged through the torrent of magic, explosions and shrapnel buffeting them from either side. She paid none of it any heed. Her pursuit was unrelenting, chasing after her prey as the two of them plowed a swath of destruction down the city streets.
Akane leaped over the stream of hearts from the Pink Sugar Heart Attack, then used Sailor Chibi-moon's head as a quick springboard to continue her jump and send her young attacker sprawling in the bargain. That jump, in turn, became a flying kick aimed at Sailor Moon. The Senshi raised her scepter, catching the attack on it, but the force of the kick knocked her back regardless, and Akane raced in pursuit.
Then her eyes widened as Kuno came flying through the air at her. He was bruised, charred from explosions, and wrapped from head to toe in golden chain. The heart-shaped links extended down to the floor below, where Sailor Venus was swinging him from. The two martial artists collided, tumbling over one another down the length of the catwalk.
Akane tried to push the unconscious kendoist off her, only to find to her shock that Venus' chain was snaking out to coil around her as well, binding her to him. She fought and struggled, but was unable to escape... until, without warning, the chain went slack, no longer moving.
The Tendo girl glanced down, and saw that Ranma had taken a break from drawing Sailor Mercury's fire to toss a Moko Takabisha into Sailor Venus' back from behind, sending her stumbling forward. Akane wasted no time in scrambling free of the now-uncontrolled chains, but the situation still didn't look good. Kuno was down for the count, and they still hadn't managed to shut down Sailor Moon as planned.
She looked back to where Shampoo was fighting Tuxedo Kamen, and saw that she was having trouble as well. She was clearly on the defensive, her cheek bleeding from a near miss with a rose, and she was limping slightly on her left leg. Feeling Akane's eyes on her, she glanced back for just a moment, looking at her, then at Sailor Moon, then gave Akane an almost-imperceptible nod. The Chinese girl had agreed with Akane's unspoken question. It was time to take more drastic measures.
Akane pulled herself back to her feet, but did so acting as though she were more damaged than she actually was. She stalled, giving Sailor Moon the opening she had been waiting for this whole fight. With no one pressuring her, she immediately raised her scepter, golden light gathering at its head. Akane launched herself at the young princess, but Sailor Moon did not check her attack, confident that she could complete it before Akane reached her. "Silver Moon Crystal Power..."
Which was exactly what Akane was counting on: taking the harmless attack in exchange for the opening that she needed. The danger in using this method was that it was a one-shot chance. Succeed or fail, the fact that Akane and Shampoo were not among the "brainwashed" was about to be revealed. It would have to succeed. Akane sprinted down the catwalk, even as the terrifying level of power built in her target's grasp.
Golden light exploded from Sailor Moon's scepter, radiance so dazzling that Akane lost all sight of the one generating it. But she charged on blindly, aiming for where she remembered Sailor Moon being. And then she was on the younger girl. She had a brief half-glimpse of the incomprehension in Sailor Moon's eyes as her opponent reached her without even slowing down. Then Akane grabbed her by the shoulders and drove her knee into the Senshi's stomach.
The wind was knocked out of the blonde girl with a strangled "whuff!" and she doubled over, the blinding light spluttering into nothingness as the scepter tumbled from her fingers. Akane spun the wobbling Senshi around, pushing her to her knees and exposing the back of her neck. She was defenseless at this point; one precise shot to the right spot would knock her out, and they would be safe from the greatest threat on the Senshi side. Akane drew her hand back for the strike—
There was no warning at all. That was the truly surreal part of it. Nothing she heard, nothing she saw, no premonition from her danger sense at all. One moment Akane was about to succeed at the task Ranma had given her, and the next moment there was a woman with long green hair standing atop a stack of crates where Akane could have sworn no one had been. And there was also a glowing white sphere of energy hurtling toward her.
She lost a crucial split-second to pure shock. Then she tried to at least complete the all-important strike before she was hit. Her hand swung down toward the back of Sailor Moon's neck, but she knew she wouldn't make it. Not fast enough, not fast enough...
And then, in the instant before the magical attack hit her, she saw a flicker of motion out of the corner of her eye, and something slammed into her, knocking her clear. Then the attack hit, and Akane caught only the briefest horrified glimpse of Shampoo as the Dead Scream caught her square in the chest, blasting her away like a rag doll.
Gasping air back into her lungs as best she could, Sailor Moon twisted her head around in time to see Shampoo's limp form smashed out the far wall of the warehouse by Sailor Pluto's Dead Scream. "No!" she managed to croak out, but it was already too late.
"Shampoo!" The cry from the white-robed fighter drowned out her protest anyway, wrenching at Sailor Moon's heart with the raw anguish in it. He flew after her, leaping up to the gaping hole in the wall and diving through it after her, catching Shampoo as she fell. The two of them landed outside, Shampoo cradled in his arms.
Before Sailor Moon could determine just how badly Shampoo had been hurt, Sailor Pluto landed on the catwalk, positioning herself between Sailor Moon and the remaining girl—the girl that Shampoo had saved at the expense of herself. Sailor Moon looked up in disbelief, using the railing to struggle back to her feet. "Sailor Pluto?" she rasped out. "Why did you do that? We're trying to save them! And... and you're not even supposed to be here! We promised them it would be just us!"
Sailor Pluto looked back at Sailor Moon, then shook her head. "A promise made to an enemy is meaningless under such circumstances," she responded. "And these girls aren't in any need of saving. Didn't you notice that your purification had no effect? These fighters are Ranma's willing servants—all of them."
"But...!" Sailor Moon protested. She couldn't exactly refute what the older Senshi had said about the effect of her Silver Moon Crystal Power Kiss. The healing magic she'd been counting on to save everyone hadn't saved anyone. She honestly didn't even know what her next step should be anymore. But even so she knew that this wasn't the way it should have gone. Not with Shampoo and not with breaking their word. She tried to find the words to make the other Senshi understand that...
...but she never got the chance, as a flicker of red and black shot past her, hitting Sailor Pluto with such furious force that it sent the Senshi flying in an end-over-end tangle of limbs.
A red haze tinted the edges of Ranma's vision as he watched Sailor Pluto spiral through the air. He didn't even let her touch the ground, chasing after her with another series of punishing strikes that kept her aloft. Sailor Moon was shouting something behind him, but he didn't catch the words.
He was enraged. Enraged at this backstabbing Senshi who had hurt Shampoo and who had almost hurt Akane. And enraged at himself. He'd thought for sure that he'd covered all the bases, that he'd thought of everything that could go wrong. He'd thought for sure that this would all end with winning his rematch against the Senshi, and forcing them to admit they'd been wrong in their bizarre refusal to believe him.
Now Shampoo had been hurt—badly hurt—at the hands of a new Senshi that shouldn't have been here. Ranma let the anger from that fuel him, his battle aura blazing around him as he pounded at her with countless strikes, faster than even his own eyes could follow.
Sailor Moon was still shouting, pleading for him to stop. But he was beyond listening. Sailor Pluto tried to swing her staff in a weak counterattack, but he caught it in mid-swing, and used his grip as leverage to land a few more hits before ripping the weapon out of her hands and flinging it away. He then grabbed her by the dark red bow on the front of her uniform, hauling her up while drawing back his hand for another punch—
There was a blaze of light from behind him, and he was suddenly knocked to the side, swatted off the catwalk like a mosquito hit by a gale-force wind. He twisted as he fell, gaining enough control over his descent to land in a crouch on the floor below, and he looked up to see what had happened.
Sailor Moon was levitating a foot or two above the catwalk, looking down at him. Except it was no longer "Sailor Moon," precisely. The sailor seifuku was gone, replaced by a long, flowing gown of white and gold. The short, wing-like protrusions on her back had unfolded into full-scale wings, a few white feathers drifting down from above as she unfurled them.
And most obvious of all—so immense that it felt as though the very planet itself was struggling to bear up under it—was the overwhelming feeling of power pouring out from her, far exceeding even what Ranma remembered from the Dark Kingdom battle.
Princess Serenity raised one hand out in front of her. "Stop!" she repeated, her voice urgent. As she spoke, she brought her hand down in a tiny gesture, as though she were handling something of incalculable fragility.
Earth-shaking force slammed Ranma flat to the ground, completely immobilizing him. There was no damage, but strain though he might, he could not move one millimeter. Soon he sensed—though from his current position he could not see—the princess start to descend toward him, levitating downward.
"I don't understand you!" He heard the princess' voice from above as she drew nearer, that pleading note still there, pleading for him to listen. "I don't understand you at all! Why did you have to do all this? Lie to us about your plans? And then ambush us? And then fight us here? I can see how much you care for Shampoo, and how much she cares for all of you! It's not like you can't feel love! I'm sure that if you'd give it a chance, we could all get along together in the same way!"
The force pinning Ranma to the ground began to dissipate a bit, allowing him to raise his head and look up at Serenity. To his surprise, he saw that there were tears in her eyes as she spoke. "Is there... I don't know... some reason why you think you need to rule this planet in order to have a place here?" she continued. "If you'd just talk it through with us, I know we could work something out. Please, help me understand!"
Ranma closed his eyes for a moment, before finally speaking up himself. "It's you guys that I don't understand," he said. "I don't get why you're so convinced we're lying to you! You wouldn't even give me a straight answer for why! But... either way, you..."
He hesitated, the words sticking painfully in his throat. But he knew there was nothing for it at this point. Shampoo was hurt, and Serenity was even now using a form he knew was a risk to her very life. And she was using it—not to annihilate him as he'd expected—but just to try and talk with him, like they'd begun to talk yesterday before it had all devolved into misunderstanding and cats and violence.
Besides, she was crying. And if there was one thing Saotome Ranma hated, it was making girls cry.
"...you win," he sighed. "I won't fight you anymore—whatever you want to do with me. Kill me... seal me away... whatever. Just... please, don't hurt any of the others. This whole thing was my idea."
At his words, a smile broke over the princess' face like the sun emerging from behind the clouds. "Of course we're not going to hurt them!" she said, pure relief in every word, as she wiped her eyes with the back of her arm. "Don't worry. I'm sure we can work something out. I'm sure we can work everything out. There's got to be a way."
As she spoke, the force holding Ranma in place vanished entirely, allowing him to climb back to his hands and knees. As he was about to stand fully, Serenity reached down and offered him her hand in assistance, a gesture of acceptance and reconciliation.
Ranma hesitated, then reached up and accepted it, his hand enveloping the princess' smaller one in a firm grip.
From his perch hidden up in the rafters, Zhang's face split into a savage grin. Truly, the goddess of fortune was smiling on him today. He could hardly have imagined a more perfect chance than this. It was exactly what he had been waiting for.
"Now," he hissed into his communications link, connecting him to Kazuo who had been waiting patiently for the go-ahead.
Sailor Mars watched, holding her breath, as Serenity made her impassioned plea to the Dark Lord lying on the floor beneath her. He has to accept, she thought—willing it to be true with all her strength. She didn't want him to die, of course. But far more than that she knew how much it would hurt her princess if they did end up having to kill him. Surely he has to give up now. He has to understand that there's no way he can beat her!
And indeed, it seemed that their opponent had seen reason. He surrendered, promising an end to the hostilities, and the knot in Sailor Mars' stomach loosened a little. Not completely—she wasn't nearly so trusting as her dumpling-headed liege—but at least they had cleared the immediate hurdle. With the Dark Lord now their prisoner they could perform a more thorough investigation of his base, and determine once and for all just who was or wasn't under his control.
And once they'd found whatever dimensional artifact he was using this time around they would be even more secure, since with that they'd have an easy way of stopping him cold if he ever did try something again. They could also get more of the story behind where he actually came from, something they still didn't know much about.
Serenity, meanwhile, was reaching down to help Ranma to his feet. Sailor Mars smiled fondly at that; it was so like that girl to immediately show such concern, even to someone who had just been attacking her. The Dark Lord accepted, reaching up and taking the princess' hand in his own.
And then Serenity began to scream.
Sailor Mars' eyes went wide in horror as the young princess crumpled to the floor, like a puppet with her strings cut. She was clutching at her chest with both hands as she convulsed, letting out wracking sobs of agony. The beautiful white dress faded away... but Sailor Moon's usual seifuku didn't replace it.
Rather, the unprotected form of Tsukino Usagi lay jerking and spasming in a fetal ball on the ground.
Raw, molten fury filled every inch of Sailor Mars' body, and her hands formed the blazing bow of her Mars Flare Sniper faster than conscious thought could ever have allowed. "Get away from her!" she screamed, as she released bolt after bolt after bolt of flame at the treacherous, cowardly liar who had hurt Usagi.
The first shot almost caught Ranma in the torso, but he bent backward at the last second, his back parallel to the ground as the flaming arrow skimmed over him. From there he twisted to fling himself off at an angle, spinning over the next bolt and rolling under the third. He then burst into a dead run, weaving back and forth like a madman as he raced for the nearest exit, as more and more attacks from the other Senshi began to target him as well.
In less than a second he dove through the door and out of sight. Sailor Mars, for her part, raced over to where Usagi lay, cradling the blonde girl in her arms. "Sailor Moon! Sailor Moon!" she pleaded, but to no response. In seconds the other Senshi had arrived, clustering around as well, with Sailor Mercury taking out her computer and lowering her visor.
The screams had stopped now, but Sailor Mars could still feel Usagi convulsing in her arms. The young girl's skin had taken on a grey pallor, and she was insensate, not responding to anything that any of them said. In the end, Sailor Mars could do nothing. Nothing except hold her tight and pray.
When Ranma finally stopped running a good distance outside the warehouse, his mind was a disjointed whirl. What had happened back there?
He wondered for a brief moment whether it had been a result of the dangerous nature of Sailor Moon's full power. But no, that didn't make sense. He'd seen her almost die to that danger before, with his own eyes, and it hadn't looked anything like that. There was something else going on here, but he had no idea what it could be.
Turning, Ranma burst into a run again, heading for the direction he'd seen Shampoo go flying and Mousse follow. As he ran, he saw Akane fleeing the warehouse through that same hole Shampoo's body had made, with a groggy Kuno draped over her shoulder and Konatsu bringing up the rear, all of them converging on where Mousse knelt with Shampoo cradled in his arms.
Akane was the first one to speak up. "What was that, Ranma?" she asked, worry in her voice. "Why did Sailor Moon just... collapse?"
"I don't know," was Ranma's answer, as he replayed those events through his mind yet again. "It didn't make any sense. All I did was take her hand, and then... she just started screaming. It was like..." He struggled for words, trying to find some way to describe the terrifying interplay of energy he had sensed as he stood there next to her. "...like something was eating away at her."
A grim silence settled over the six martial artists for a few seconds. Then Ranma spoke up again. "Anyway, we have to decide what we're going to do," he told them. "Right now the Senshi are all busy with Sailor Moon, but they'll be coming out sooner or later. And I don't think they'll be in the mood to talk when they do."
"Wait," interrupted Mousse. "There's something you ought to know, Ranma. Back there, in the warehouse... there was someone watching us." A ripple of surprised murmurs came from the others, but Mousse continued. "He was a martial artist. I'm sure of it. Very high level. His stealth technique was astonishing. Even I barely managed to notice him."
Ranma's fists clenched, his eyes narrowing. That one extra piece of information crystallized for him what had up until that point been only vague suspicions. There was something else going on here. Someone had been watching them, observing the entire battle. The timing of what had happened to Sailor Moon, the way it had looked like his doing... it had been no coincidence.
Someone had set them up.
Quickly reaching a decision, he turned back to look at the rest of them. "Akane," he said. "Wake Kuno up. Then the two of you get Shampoo to Doctor Tofu's clinic so he can treat her."
Akane nodded, and Ranma then turned back to Mousse. "Do you think you could find this guy again? Before he gets away?"
The hidden weapons master didn't look at all happy about leaving Shampoo's side, but he understood the situation. "Yes. Now that I know what I'm searching for... yes."
"Then let's get going," Ranma said, anger flashing in his eyes. "Someone tried to use us to cover their tracks, and that spy is the one clue we have. So I say we hunt the bastard down and see what we can get out of him."
Destructive energy rained down all around Ryouga, a never-ending cataclysm that it was taking every last bit of skill and speed he had just to survive. He threw himself left and right, twisting between the bolts, his clothing tattered and torn from the debris from countless near-misses. He leapt ever-backward, occasionally finding an opening to launch a Shi Shi Hokodan or two in reply.
Mustering depression was, at this point, no difficult task, and the ki blasts roared across the shattered street toward their target. But the lost boy might as well have been throwing droplets of water for all the effect they had. Sailor Saturn continued her relentless advance, raising her glaive each time and catching Ryouga's attacks on her Silence Wall. The ki projectiles splashed across the barriers, detonating in large bursts of light, but the Silence Walls themselves never so much as wavered.
He was panting for breath, and he knew that he couldn't keep this up much longer. Sooner or later—probably sooner—he was going to slip. And then it would be over. He had to think of something, some way to turn the tables, but he was coming up blank. And Sailor Saturn...
Ryouga's blood suddenly went cold, as he realized that the young girl was charging magic to the blade of her weapon again—and had been doing so for longer than any of her previous attacks. She raised the weapon high above her head, as though in preparation for a strike, though she was a full half-block away. "Silence..."
Every instinct in Ryouga screamed at him to run, but he held his ground. If he made his attempt at a dodge now, she would have time to retarget her attack, and he would die. He had to wait until she had committed to it, and then hope that he still had enough time to get out of the way, aiming for a split-second window that might not even exist.
She swung the glaive straight down, releasing an enormous slash of magic, both towering over the surrounding houses and slicing deep into the ground as it carved a wedge down the middle of the street toward the lost boy. Ryouga hurled himself to the side, the air displacement from the near miss slamming into him and adding to the speed of his cartwheeling, out-of-control flight. His trajectory carried him so far that he hit the wall of one of the nearby houses, crashing though it in a shower of wood and plaster. He crashed through the next wall too, before finally rolling to a stop.
Climbing back to his hands and knees, he looked around himself, and saw that he had landed in a small kitchen. Looking closer, he saw that it was occupied; a family of four—a father, a mother and two daughters—were huddled together at the far end. The youngest daughter, probably around four or five, was staring at him with wide, terrified eyes, her parents clutching her tight to them. The older daughter, around nine or ten, was standing in front of her younger sister protectively, even though her own knees were trembling.
The half-second of shocked silence seemed to stretch on forever as they stared at each other. Ryouga scratched the back of his head self-consciously before finally speaking. "Ummm..." he began. "...hi?"
The younger daughter began to scream. Perfect, Ryouga thought resignedly. Just perfect.
The Silence Cleave eventually faded, leaving behind a gaping chasm that covered almost the entire width of the street, stretching three blocks long and just as deep. But Sailor Saturn knew that the attack had missed, that Ryouga had escaped once again.
Then she heard the child's screams from inside the house, and a chill ran down her spine. She threw caution to the wind, breaking into an all-out run, praying that she could get there before the Dark Lord did anything to the house's inhabitants. She leapt through the hole in the wall that Ryouga himself had made, regaining sight of him in the process, and swung her glaive down at him in midflight.
Ryouga hopped back further into the room, neatly avoiding the blade. Sailor Saturn gave chase, the Silence Glaive whirling and spinning and slicing in vicious arcs around her, attacking her foe without pause. She didn't dare use her magic blasts in such close proximity with an innocent family, forcing her to rely on nothing but her close-combat skill as the two of them dueled back and forth through the room at lightning speed.
"Oh wow!" As the two warriors fought, Sailor Saturn could hear the older of the two girls gushing, the words pouring from her mouth in a rushed combination of excitement and reverence. "Mom! Dad! That's one of the Sailor Senshi! He's totally going to get his butt kicked now, you just watch!"
And she certainly seemed to have the upper hand at the moment. The Dark Lord was still on the defensive, barely attacking at all as they ricocheted around the room, so Sailor Saturn continued to press him as hard as she could. He gave ground steadily, always staying just a little bit ahead of her strikes no matter how fast she came at him. She increased the ferocity of her offense even more, trying to force him into a corner.
Then she saw it. An opening. Ryouga had made a mistake—a small one, almost imperceptible, but it was exactly what she had been waiting for. She pounced on it, lunging with all the speed she could muster, glaive stabbing out in a thrust that would impale him clean through—
—and then the jaws of his trap slammed shut. The Dark Lord's hand clamped down on the haft of her weapon, yanking her off-balance toward him and into a shoulder throw that spun Sailor Saturn through the air and deposited her flat on her back. Ryouga's foot lashed out, kicking the Silence Glaive away, sending it spinning across the floor.
His hands, meanwhile, were twisting her hand into a wristlock, then twisting her entire arm to brace it against his standing leg in an armbar. That complete, he brought back the leg he'd used to kick away her glaive and placed it under her chin, immobilizing her even further.
Sailor Saturn kicked and struggled, trying with all her strength to break free, but she had no leverage and no angle on him. She tried to call magic to her palm, but Ryouga simply applied a little more pressure to his joint locks, and her attack dissipated with a short cry of "ah!"
Ryouga took a second to catch his breath, his panting quickly falling into a normal rhythm again as he relaxed a bit, confident that he had things under control now. "All right," he said at length, after he'd made sure she was securely in his hold. "Looks like I win this one. So—"
"Let her go!"
The danger of her own predicament had prompted some degree of fear in Sailor Saturn, but that was nothing compared to how her blood ran cold when she saw the older of the two little girls charge at Ryouga from behind. "No, don't!" she shouted, but the girl paid her no heed, swinging her small fists ineffectually into the Dark Lord's back. She was clearly doing more damage to her own knuckles than to him, but still she continued to beat away at him with all her strength.
"What the—?" Ryouga muttered, glancing back over his shoulder in perplexity. But then, seeing what was going on, he proceeded to twist around... and then reach back with his free hand toward his new attacker.
"No!" Sailor Saturn moved with a speed she had seldom equaled, desperate to stop her foe before he could touch the girl. To his inhuman strength, an ordinary child's body would be little more than a piece of tissue paper, and she would not let him lay a finger on her, no matter what. In that moment of distraction when his eyes were off her, her untrapped hand shot up, two fingers pointing up at him with magic power glowing at their tip as she improvised a completely new attack right on the spot. "Silence Needle!"
Ryouga whirled back around, twisting at the last second so that the thin beam that burst up from her fingertips missed his torso. It still hit him in the left shoulder, however, burning straight through the joint, the ceiling beyond, and into the sky. He let out a scream of pain, and Sailor Saturn was able to wrench her trapped arm free of his hold and roll to her feet.
The girl was still right behind him, so Sailor Saturn didn't dare attack him head-on. Rather, she needed to get him out of here, now. So she simply clenched her right fist, summoning as much of her power there as she could in the brief interval of time as she swung her magic-wreathed hand around from the side toward him like a comet.
Even injured as he was, he still almost dodged it. But not quite. He managed to take the blow on his upper-left arm, and she could feel the bone shatter as her accumulated power discharged into him. She thought that she felt some of his ribs crunch as well, as his broken body smashed through every wall in the house, flew across the street, and crashed completely through the house on the opposite side.
For a moment she simply stood there, looking at the path of destruction Ryouga's body had caused as the adrenaline from that last close call faded from her system. She had done it. She was certain that he would be in no further shape to fight after that last hit. The battle had been long and destructive, but it had finally reached its conclusion. The young girl, directly visible now that the Dark Lord between them had vanished, was gaping up at her, awestruck. That entire exchange had doubtless been far too fast for her to even register.
"Are you all right?" The Senshi knelt down, checking the girl for any injuries, which thankfully there seemed to be none. The girl nodded rapidly in response as well. "Good," Sailor Saturn continued. "That was..." She hesitated, trying to decide exactly what she ought to say, before finally settling on "...very brave. But also very dangerous."
The girl beamed back up at her, and Sailor Saturn got the feeling that the last part hadn't quite had the effect she'd intended. But she didn't have time to figure out the right words; her foe was still out there, even if incapacitated. "I need to go. Please, stay here where it's safe."
Getting back to her feet and reaching out her hand, she re-summoned her glaive to her palm in a flash of light. Then she jumped out into the street, following the trail of broken walls herself, step by step. She soon reached the place where Ryouga's flight had ended and there found the Dark Lord again.
Astonishingly, he was still conscious. He was on his hands and knees—or rather, hand and knees. His left arm hung limp and useless at his side, so he was supporting himself only with his right as he crawled down the street. As she watched, he managed to fight his way back to a standing position and stagger a few steps further, only to double over with a wracking cough that left blood on his hand once he'd pulled it away.
Sailor Saturn winced. She hadn't dared go easy on him in the thick of the fight... but in his current state he was no longer a threat to her friends or anyone else. And she didn't enjoy seeing anyone in such pain—Dark Lord or no. She made another leap, landing directly in front of the older boy, and raised her glaive across his path.
"Stop," she told him. "I can't let you escape... but if you surrender, I can get you medical attention. Please, don't make this any worse than it has to be."
The Dark Lord looked up at her for a few seconds, let out a soft, pained breath that was almost a laugh, then slumped to his knees again. "Guess... I don't have much choice, do I? Heh. Got me good." Another cough wracked him, bowing his head. "Wasn't... actually going to hurt the kid, though. I swear. Just wanted to... hold her off."
Sailor Saturn advanced toward him, not letting her guard down but watching him closely as she drew nearer. She didn't really think he could still put up a fight, but it was better to be careful than careless. Her scrutiny detected no sign of aggression remaining in him, however.
As she approached her defeated opponent, she tried to think of what exactly to do with a prisoner like this. It wasn't a situation that had ever come up for her before. Taking him to a normal jail would be... difficult to explain. Maybe Sailor Pluto would know a place where he could be safely kept? She would have to contact the older Senshi as soon as—
But her train of thought was interrupted as Ryouga's head suddenly snapped up, his eyes going wide. "Behind you!" he shouted.
It was the oldest trick in the book. And it was one that by all rights she shouldn't have paid the slightest attention to. But... maybe it was that the Dark Lord didn't seem like much of a threat anymore, or maybe it was the raw desperation she saw in his eyes. Whatever the reason, she did turn her head in response, just a little.
Just enough. Enough to catch, out of the corner of her eye, the figure hurtling toward her from behind.
She whirled around, flinging herself away, lifting her glaive high just in time to block a pair of twin swords as they slashed down from above, sparks flying as the weapons connected. She was already off-balance from her last-second evasion, and the force of the impact nearly knocked her over.
She backpedaled, her feet scrambling for purchase as she tried to stay upright, as the grey, faceless humanoid creature continued to press down on her. And, to her horror, she realized that the thing had four arms, a sword in each, the bottom two even now about to pierce her unprotected stomach.
Then she felt a hand clamp down on the collar of her uniform from behind, and her backward momentum increased enormously. The grey creature's blades cut only air, as Ryouga hurled her to safety behind him. After releasing her he immediately clenched his fist, and swung it back into the creature's featureless head, knocking it into a tumble down the length of the street.
The young Senshi gaped, her jaw hanging open, her heart still hammering in her chest as she tried to wrap her mind around what had just happened. The Dark Lord, for his part, crumpled immediately to his knees, coughing violently and clutching at his side with his functional arm. The grey creature pulled itself back to its feet, prompting Ryouga to look up at it, then glance back at her. "Watch out," he rasped. "There's a lot more than just this one."
Seconds after he spoke, she saw other grey creatures identical to the first start to appear over the rooftops all around, showing up in force now that their sneak attack had failed. Sailor Saturn spun, covering the opposite direction to mitigate their blind spot.
It was only after she'd done so that she was struck by how surreal it was to be suddenly going back-to-back with the Dark Lord she'd just been fighting against.
The grey creatures jumped down from the surrounding rooftops, slowly circling their prey, over a dozen in all. Ryouga planted his feet, pushing back the pain as he fought his way back to a standing position. "So..." he said over his shoulder, without taking his eyes off the creatures in front of him. "Friends of yours?"
"I don't know what they are," replied Sailor Saturn. "I heard that the Inner Senshi fought off grey monsters like these a few weeks ago... but this is my first time seeing them."
Well, whatever these things were, he'd just seen them try to impale a young girl from behind, so Ryouga had no inclination to go easy on them. With his working arm, he reached down and yanked the belt from around his waist, sending some of his ki into it to make it go rigid and razor-sharp as he snapped it out and held it at his side. "Huh. Well, I'll try to cover this side as much as I can manage."
"All right." Sailor Saturn hesitated, something clearly on the tip of her tongue, before finally continuing in a softer voice. "Tell me... why? Why did you save—?"
But it was then that the grey creatures made their move, lunging toward the pair as one, some leaping in from above, some racing along the ground. The lost boy grimaced. There was no way he could fend off so many at once in his debilitated state. This is going to hurt.
"Silence Wall!" Just before the creatures swarmed him, a familiar barrier of energy appeared in their path, breaking their charge. The grey things in the lead slammed into it, unable to check their speed in time, while the others broke off, trying to angle around it. His eyebrows went up a little, and he glanced over his shoulder. Sailor Saturn had used her forcefield to protect him, rather than herself.
Behind him, the Senshi ducked and leaped back, narrowly avoiding the swords of the nearest creatures as they swarmed her. She lashed out with her glaive even as she ducked, cutting clean through one of their legs at the knee. Another was jumping down at her from above, but she spun, using the far-superior length of her weapon to stab up and impale it through the chest before it could reach her. Then she whipped it around, flinging the dying creature off her glaive so that it hit another one of its attacking companions, sending them both tumbling away.
By then the creatures on the other side had circumvented the Silence Wall, pouring around it to leap at Sailor Saturn from behind. Ignore me, will you? thought Ryouga, as he lunged at the nearest one, though the agonizing pain from his broken ribs and crushed arm caused the attack to be far clumsier than it would normally have been.
The creature avoided his first slash, then tried to counterattack, but Ryouga's belt suddenly went flexible again, snaking through the air to wrap around one of its wrists. The lost boy jumped back and yanked, turning the thing's charge into an off-balance stumble. His belt promptly went rigid again as he stabbed it through the grey thing's blank face, then kicked it off his weapon to crash into one of its fellows.
White spots flared across his vision from the impact of delivering those strikes, leaving him too dizzy to evade as yet another creature jumped at him from behind. All four of its swords swung, carving twin X shapes into his back in a spray of blood. He let out a howl as the thing first slammed him to the ground, then flipped him over onto his back aiming down a slash for his throat.
But it never landed, as the monster was torn in half by a blast of pale purple magic. Turning to deliver that attack left Sailor Saturn open, and the creatures that were besetting her from every side rushed to take advantage, but she planted the tip of her glaive into the ground, using it to vault in a cartwheel over their heads, landing in an upward slash that split her nearest pursuer from left hip to right shoulder.
The remaining creatures encircled her once again, but she kept them all at bay, whirling her weapon in dizzying circles around her, slashing at any who dared step within reach of it. One creature lunged in, trying to block as her attack came toward it, but the Silence Glaive cut straight through both the swords it had raised in defense and decapitated it, continuing in its swing as though it had encountered no resistance at all.
None of them were attacking Ryouga, evidently determining that an enemy bleeding on the ground was a lower threat priority than the Senshi. But the lost boy was not down for the count yet. The creatures might have assumed an attack like that would be enough to take him out of the fight, but his hide had long since been toughened to the point where it could shrug off Kijin Raishu Dan attacks with little effect. The fact that this enemy's swords could cut him at all was impressive, but even so the cuts had been too shallow to stop him.
He gritted his teeth and pried his head off the ground, looking over to where Sailor Saturn was fighting, her sweeping slashes both fierce and precise as she held the surrounding monsters off with steel-eyed determination. Magic was building at the tip of her glaive again, doubtless in preparation for another attack, adding purple trails to her every swing. It was an impressive sight to watch—and a great deal easier to appreciate when he wasn't the target of it.
Then his danger sense spiked. He turned, looking away from the fight and toward a distant rooftop, just in time to see a glowing green hole appear in the middle of the air, and another grey creature come floating out of it. This one was different from the others; it was tall, frail-looking and wispy, shrouded in what looked halfway between a tattered grey robe and simple rags.
From its new position it raised its arms, aiming down to target Sailor Saturn as an inky black energy began to crackle around its hands, building with every second, until a spike of killing intent told the lost boy that it was about to shoot. In desperation, Ryouga stabbed his finger down, and a crack raced out from the point where he'd touched the ground to a point just beside of one of the grey sword-wielders.
There his Bakusai Tenketsu detonated, sending the creature flipping through the air... and right into the would-be sniper's line of fire just after it released the bolt. Instead of hitting Sailor Saturn, the black energy struck the other monster, its limbs convulsing as it dropped from the sky. The Senshi whirled—aware of the distant threat now—and released the charge she'd been building on her glaive. The resulting beam of magic lanced up through the air, ripping the spectral-looking creature to shreds. She spared Ryouga a brief, grateful glance, before returning her attention to the fight.
Unfortunately, Sailor Saturn was not the only one who had noticed his intervention. One of the remaining sword-wielders disengaged from harrying her and moved to finish off Ryouga. The lost boy climbed back to his feet, despite another wracking cough that doubled him over. His breath was coming in wet rasps now, but he nevertheless raised his working arm, holding his belt-sword in a defensive position.
They slashed and slashed at each other, one blade against four. Ryouga gave ground with every strike, and received several more nasty cuts in the process. Seeing an opening, he managed to hack off both the monster's left arms at the elbows, but to his surprise the thing didn't even falter at the wound. It continued its attack, driving a kick into Ryouga's chest that blasted him across the street and through the display window of a small convenience store.
He hit hard, nearly blacking out from the continued abuse of his broken body, but through sheer willpower he hung on. He could hear the sound of rapid footfalls as his attacker raced toward his prone form. He gasped for breath, keeping his eyes open, watching the hole in the glass that he had made. His belt straightened again in his hands, and then with a little extra concentration, a bluish-white aura began to flicker around the cloth, short wisps rising in the air. Any second now, any second now...
The grey creature came into view, its remaining two swords upraised as it ran toward him. The instant it appeared Ryouga hurled his belt-sword toward it, spinning through the air like a buzzsaw. The monster raised its remaining two swords to block the oncoming attack... only to have the weapon cut through both the swords and the monster behind them without stopping.
With a heavy thud, the creature's twitching corpse tumbled to the ground. Ryouga's belt fell too, crumbling into small drifting shreds of fabric on the way down. That little aura trick was one he'd picked up over a year ago. It increased the sharpness of the cutting edge tenfold beyond even that of the basic Iron Cloth technique... but it would also destroy any cloth on which it was used in short order.
Outside, Ryouga could hear the sounds of battle continuing, though he could not see it at the moment. He was almost delirious with pain at this point, but he nevertheless rolled back to his knees, then climbed slowly back to his feet. Even if his remaining combat ability was... negligible, he still wasn't just going to lie around and make a young girl fight for him. These attackers—whoever they were—had already used underhanded tactics twice now, and who knew what they might still have up their sleeves that he might be able to help foil?
Drawing a wet, shuddering breath and placing one foot in front of the other, Ryouga began to stumble as fast as he could manage in the direction he remembered the battlefield being.
With the Sailor Senshi all clustered around their fallen princess, it was no great feat for Zhang to slip back out of the warehouse undetected. He landed outside, careful to keep the building between him and the group of martial artists that they had used as their scapegoats. As he walked away toward the surrounding buildings, he murmured into his throat mike. "Now that was impressive."
"Impressive, yes... but still dangerously unstable," replied Kazuo over the earpiece. "It seems that Doctor Metzger's concerns were well-founded. The instant we lowered the thaumaturgic inhibitors, Unit Zero attacked Sailor Moon with a ferocity far exceeding all projections. He and Ekim were barely able to bring the inhibitors back up and stabilize the connection before irreparable damage was caused."
"Can they fix the problem?" asked Zhang.
"With the data they collected today they claim that they can," Kazuo said. "But it will take time. Fortunately, at this point any investigation that the Sailor Senshi perform on this attack will be aimed in an entirely incorrect direction."
The Chinese assassin smiled. Their precaution of using those martial artists as a smokescreen had indeed turned out to be a useful tactic. "What about the Synths?" he asked. "The group targeting Sailor Saturn? Did they succeed in their mission?"
"A mixed result," answered his employer. "It was fortunate we had them out there, at least. One of the 'Dark Lords' was about to be taken prisoner by Sailor Saturn instead of killed, which could obviously have proved detrimental to our deception. So I had the Synths launch their attack. In the best case they would have left Sailor Saturn lying in a pool of her own blood, with that much more blame left on our unwitting pawns. The actual result was... not ideal, but they did manage to separate them."
"And their primary objective?" inquired Zhang.
"A failure." Kazuo didn't mince words. "The Synths didn't put a single scratch on her. She's obliterating the last remnants of that force even as we speak."
Zhang chuckled. "Well, the operation here went as perfectly as you could have asked for. We got our test run, and the Senshi will be going after those martial artists with a vengeance after today, not us. The poor saps don't even have any idea who..."
His voice abruptly trailed off, as further down the street, two figures stepped out from around the corner from either side: one pigtailed, dressed in red and black, the other wearing long white robes. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw a black-clad kunoichi—or rather, a male ninja disguised as a kunoichi, if he was any judge—land behind him, ninja-to drawn.
The assassin sighed. "Sorry, sir," he murmured into the throat mike. "It looks like they were more perceptive than I gave them credit for..."
Kazuo frowned, interlacing his fingers as he stared up at the bank of monitors glowing before him in his personal office. "How many are there?" he asked. "And how do you estimate your chances of overcoming them?"
"Three," came the static-tinged response from Zhang, filling the air. "All strong fighters. The Saotome boy, a weapon master, and a high-level ninja. If I fought to kill, I could definitely down at least one. Maybe even two. But killing all three of them, if they came at me together... that would take a bit of luck."
The businessman's lip twisted. And worse, even if Zhang did succeed, he would be killing the very people they'd intended to divert the Sailor Senshi. That could create a suspicious situation, to say the least. After a moment's thought, Kazuo made his decision. "Hold position for now," he said. "And switch your comm to speaker mode. I want to hear what they say."
There was a click, and the level of ambient static increased. Kazuo did not say anything himself, and in fact muted his line with a few keystrokes on one of the keyboards in front of him.
"Hey!" he soon heard a voice call out, brash and angry. "You! I want to know why you were sneaking around in the warehouse, and what the hell it was you did to Sailor Moon!"
"I have no idea what you mean," was Zhang's reply. "Yes, it's true that I was watching you... but only because I sensed an interesting battle taking place nearby and I wanted to observe it. I have no connection to whatever it was that happened to this... what did you call her? Sailor Moon?"
"Bullshit." The same voice again. "Someone with your level of skill just happens to be spying on us way out here? At the same time as an attack like that? You've got about three seconds to start being straight with us, or we're gonna beat the truth out of you."
It was obvious that the situation was fast deteriorating. This isn't a fight that serves my purposes, Kazuo thought. I want Zhang out of there intact, and I want those three alive to fill the role I've already cast them in. But the way things are going that may not be an option.
It was then that an idea occurred to him. An idea that that had... intriguing possibilities... even beyond averting the immediate problem. After a moment's thought, the businessman reached out and reactivated the microphone on his end.
"I apologize for this, Saotome Ranma," he said. "And I request that you not to attack my subordinate. He was only acting on my orders."
Ranma's eyes narrowed as the new voice spoke out of the gadget on the hip of the black-robed man. "Your orders," he repeated. "And you are...?"
"Someone with an offer to make, if you are willing to listen," replied the voice, as calm and collected as if the speaker were discussing the weather. "I admit, we did engineer events today so that you took the blame for our actions. But once you understand what is at stake, I trust that you will also understand why we had little choice in the matter. And if you accept my proposition, I am willing to help you and your friends out of the predicament that my actions have placed you in."
A frown crossed Ranma's face. He didn't trust this guy, not for one second. But at the same time they needed to figure out what was going on here, so he decided to play along. "What kind of a 'proposition' are we talking about?"
"That is something I would prefer to discuss in a more private setting," replied the speaker. "More specifically, I would like to meet you. Face to face."
All kinds of warning bells began to go off in Ranma's head at that. "And why should I believe you?" he shot back. "How do I know this isn't a trap?"
"Because simply killing you would be of little benefit to me," was the immediate response. "Indeed, at this point your sudden removal from the game might well cause more problems than it solves. On the other hand, if we can come to an understanding, that has the potential for immense benefit to both of us."
Ranma said nothing, staring down at the tiny communications device as though by doing so he could somehow read the man on the other end. After a moment, the mysterious voice continued. "In the end, you are limited to three options. You can allow my agent to go, in which case I will leave you to your own devices. You can try to restrain him, which I assure you will end in blood, and leave you with—at best—a captive whose will I very much doubt that you can break. Or, finally, you can accept my invitation. The choice is yours."
None of the options sounded appealing to Ranma. But if he wanted to truly get to the bottom of this, he knew he'd have to track down whoever was pulling the strings. And this seemed the fastest way to do it. It was a gamble, but he'd taken worse gambles before. "...all right," he said at last. "I'll listen to what you have to say."
"Excellent," was the voice's pleased response. "Then please, follow Zhang. He will lead you to a rendezvous point where a car will be waiting."
At the sound of the black-robed man's name, Mousse suddenly snapped his head up. The blind master's sightless eyes were wide, his face twisting into a mask of disbelief mixed with rage. "Zhang?" he ground out, something terrible and deadly in his voice, something Ranma had never heard there before. "You... Your voice... I knew there was something familiar about you!"
The black-robed man's response was an amused smile. "So you finally realized..." he said. "I know I've changed since my younger days, but I'm glad you can still recognize a fellow student..."
Mousse's hand shot deep into his sleeve. Ranma lunged, only barely managing to grab the hidden weapon master's wrist as he tried to yank out a scimitar. "What the hell do you think you're doing, man?" the pigtailed fighter hissed. "This is not the time!"
But it didn't look like the words even registered to Mousse. He strained against Ranma's grasp, and although Ranma was normally the stronger of the two, right now Ranma was only barely managing to hold him in check. "I'm going to kill him," Mousse rasped, his voice trembling with barely-contained hatred. "Don't get in my way, Saotome. This time, I swear I'm going to kill him!"
Zhang, meanwhile, was watching the scene with undisguised merriment. "Kill me?" he asked, holding his arms wide in an affectation of innocence. "I can't imagine why you'd want to do that. I did, after all, spare your life."
Mousse spat out something truly vile-sounding in Chinese, and his straining against Ranma's grasp increased even more, almost to the breaking point. "Damn it, Mousse!" Ranma snapped. "Don't let him get to you like this! I don't know what your deal with him is, but he's trying to mess with your head!"
"Yes, you should probably listen to your friend there," Zhang agreed, his eyes gleaming. "You wouldn't want another repeat of what happened six years ago, would you? Or... maybe you would. After all, you made it out of that night pretty well, all things considered. You even earned yourself a nice sword... to commemorate your achievement."
Something snapped in Mousse at those words. He let out a wordless cry, shoved Ranma aside, and threw himself at Zhang in a flash of white. The scimitar shot out of his sleeve, a longsword appearing in his other hand immediately thereafter, both weapons slashing at their target in a furious storm of strikes that ripped gashes into the ground with the air pressure they unleashed.
Zhang laughed, flipping a pair of sais out of his sleeves, which he used to deflect the murderous assault. Sparks flew through the air, metal clashing against metal, as Zhang warded off Mousse's frenzied swings with clinical precision. Without warning, Mousse hurled both swords at Zhang's head, then spun, an enormous battle axe shooting out of his sleeve as the hidden weapons master swung it around in an attempt to cut his opponent in half at the waist.
The black-robed man swatted the swords away with his sais, releasing them as his did so, and planted his palm on the flat of the axe as it ripped through the air toward him. He used that hand to flip himself over the swing, twisting so that his foot struck down from above toward Mousse's head. Ranma saw that gleaming on the tip of his shoe was a small, concealed blade.
Mousse dropped the battle-axe, swinging one arm up to just barely deflect the shoe-blade with a knife that he whipped from his sleeve. He thrust his other arm toward Zhang, a spear exploding from that sleeve toward his opponent's throat. But Zhang drew a barbed cat-o'-nine-tails whip from his sleeve, first entangling Mousse's weapon it its coils and redirecting it, then ripping the wooden haft of the spear to pieces with a casual twist and a yank.
The blind warrior threw himself forward again, hacking away at his foe with a pair of Chinese dao blades. But he was fighting with far more bloodlust than strategy, and Zhang was toying with him as a result. None of his attacks were getting through. The black-robed man parried them with a pair of kama hand-scythes, watching calmly as Mousse's fury increased.
Then Zhang counterattacked, trapping both of Mousse's swords in the crook of his kama, disarming the blind master with a quick wrench. Mousse tried to draw more weapons... but in his rage he had overextended himself far too much. Before he could get them out one of Zhang's blades was swinging around for the side of his head.
Ranma moved. He'd been gathering his ki, watching for the right moment to intervene in the fierce struggle... and in attacking Mousse, Zhang had left a tiny opening of his own. The Anything-Goes heir fairly teleported across the battlefield, catching Zhang's wrist centimeters before the blade could touch Mousse's temple and then kicking Mousse off to the side himself in an attempt to stop the fight. Then, even as Zhang's focus shifted to Ranma's sudden appearance, Konatsu took advantage of that to enter the fray himself, appearing directly behind Zhang and hooking his sword around to hold at the black-robed man's throat.
For a moment, the entire scene froze. "Be careful, Ranma!" cautioned the ninja, urgency in his voice. "I can smell poison on his blades. Don't let him so much as scratch you!"
Zhang, however, had made no move to even defend himself against the new attackers, or to continue his own attack. "As I thought," he said, with a nonchalant smile entirely at odds with the sword at his throat. "Guarding against three fighters of your level at the same time would have been difficult. Though I hope you won't begrudge me for responding to your friend's unprovoked attack."
Ranma said nothing in reply, only looked back with an impassive gaze. When he did speak, it was not to Zhang. "Hey. Mousse. You got your head back on straight now?"
Mousse said nothing. He had climbed back to his feet, but—although murderous intent was still seething around him—he had thankfully not attacked again. Ranma continued to talk, his eyes never once leaving Zhang. "Good. Because I need you to listen to me. This meeting is our one shot at figuring out just what the hell we've gotten ourselves into. I don't have a clue why you want to kill this guy so much... but you'd better ask yourself how much danger you're willing to put Shampoo in to do it."
The muscles in Mousses jaw worked for several seconds, but eventually he gave a single, curt nod. "All right," Ranma said. "Then you and Konatsu head back. If you don't hear from me by the end of the day, then find some way to let the Sailor Senshi know everything we've figured out so far."
Which wasn't much, and wasn't likely to be believed unless they were very convincing. But if this new group was as committed to secrecy as they seemed to be, it still might make them think twice before pulling a double-cross. Ranma carefully released his hold on Zhang's arm, allowing the black-robed man to put his two kama back into his sleeves. Then Konatsu backed away, leaving only Ranma and Zhang standing there facing each other.
"Well then," said Zhang, as though none of that altercation had even happened. "Let's get moving, if you don't mind. My employer does not like to be kept waiting."
Sailor Saturn lowered her glaive as the remains of the final grey creature toppled lifelessly to the ground. Once she confirmed that the immediate threat had been dealt with, she immediately turned and ran in the direction of the store that Ryouga had been kicked. She could see the dead monster that he had killed by throwing his belt, slumped half-in, half-out of the broken window... but as she got closer and looked into the store itself she saw no sign of the Dark Lord anywhere.
The young Senshi let out a sigh, berating herself for her foolishness. Of course. Of course he had taken the opportunity to escape. In fact, the only real surprise was that he had waited so long to do so. He'd had no lack of opportunities to flee, given how the grey creatures had been concentrating on her.
Yet inexplicably he'd stayed and fought. Even protecting her from that wraith-like sniper.
Why? Why would he go to such lengths? She hadn't gotten an answer to her question. He'd fought against her... then saved her life, twice... then mysteriously vanished, leaving her to try and make sense of it all.
She leapt up to the rooftop of the store, looking back and forth to search the surrounding area, but there was no sign of which direction he had gone. And that was assuming he hadn't simply teleported back to his base straightaway. Her shoulders slumped a little. Is he really against us? she asked herself. If he was, then why would he protect me like that? But... if he wasn't, then why would he just run away afterward, without explaining anything? Was he... afraid of what I would do to him? But I already told him we didn't need to fight anymore!
Different possible answers chased themselves through her head, but with Ryouga gone there was no way to confirm any of them. In the end, she decided to hurry back to the warehouse, the one place where she knew she might be needed. Maybe, depending on how things had gone, she could get the answers she wanted from one of the other Dark Lords there. And either way it would let her confirm that Sailor Moon and Sailor Chibi-moon were safe.
Yes, she thought, as she turned and began to leap from rooftop to rooftop, heading back toward Nerima as fast as she could. This was the best course of action at this point. After all, if there were any peaceful solution, any possible way to avoid further conflict with these Dark Lords, then surely her princess, if anyone, would be able to find it.
In fact, she wouldn't be surprised if Sailor Moon had already worked everything out by the time Sailor Saturn arrived back there.
All right, Ryouga thought, as he hobbled his way down the street, using the wall of the nearby building to support himself. This time I'm sure I've got it! We were fighting right over...
He rounded the corner, and saw nothing but an empty street, with no damage or bodies of grey creatures or... anything. With an inarticulate groan, he sank back down to his knees. There was no denying it anymore.
He was lost.
His head sagged despondently, his breath wheezing in and out. Even if he had somehow found the battlefield again the fight, considering the length of time he had already spent trying to find his way back, it was probably long since over by now, one way or the other. Which left him here, alone on a street corner, with a broken arm, broken ribs, coughing up blood, no idea where he was, and no idea how to get back to where he needed to be.
He didn't know how long he lay there, slumped there against the building wall. Time seemed to blur in and out of focus... until finally he heard someone shouting his name. "Ryouga! Ryouga!"
Wearily, the lost boy raised his head, to see Ukyo and Beneda hurrying down the street toward him. Beneda was in her human form, and was carrying a medical kit. She had apparently used it already to splint up Ukyo's leg, allowing the young chef greater ability to move around on it, though she was still using her battle spatula to support her weight as well.
"Ryouga! What happened?" Beneda rushed over to his side, kneeling down to check his injuries. Her face paled at even her cursory examination, scarcely able to believe the degree of damage that the normally invincible fighter had sustained. "Who did this to you?"
Ryouga managed a wry grin. "Had a little run-in with Sailor Saturn," he said. "She's... pretty tough all right. Packs a hell of a punch. Seemed like a nice kid otherwise, though."
Beneda's eyes bulged at his words, stunned into complete speechlessness. Ukyo, for her part, gave a grim nod. "We followed the trail of destruction you left, after we got back to where you were supposed to be," she explained. "Once that ended, we just started searching the area until we found you. Lucky thing you hadn't gotten too far."
"We need to get him back to Doctor Tofu's right away!" interrupted Beneda, her voice urgent. "His injuries are... very bad. Ukyo, can you look around and try to find something we can use to make a stretcher?"
The okonomiyaki chef nodded, immediately dashing off, while Beneda knelt down next to the lost boy and tried to do what she could for him with the supplies she had on hand. As she worked, Beneda glanced back up at Ryouga for a moment, worry still in her eyes. "You liar..." she whispered. "You promised they wouldn't even scratch you..."
The lost boy let out a barely-audible chuckle. "Sorry," he mumbled. "I'll be more careful next time..."
Back at the warehouse, Sailor Mars watched in anxiety as Tuxedo Kamen tried once again to use his healing power. Golden light suffused Usagi's unconscious body as he cradled her in his arms, desperation in his eyes... but it had no more effect than the previous times he'd tried it. Whatever Ranma had done to her, it was on a deeper level than physical healing could affect.
The rest of the Senshi clustered around, along with the two cats who had been found and freed from the crate they had been imprisoned in. No one spoke. The weight of what had happened hung on them too heavily for that.
It was Sailor Mercury who finally broke the silence. "We need to move her somewhere else," she said, clearly exerting great effort to keep her voice calm and controlled. "If the enemy regroups and attacks, she'll be vulnerable like this."
The other Senshi nodded in agreement. So did Sailor Mars, although her mind was barely registering such immediate details. Instead, her memories kept replaying that final, gut-wrenching attack over and over, the memory of Ranma feigning surrender, preying on Serenity's kindness, then taking her offer of friendship and reconciliation and using it as an opening to viciously strike her down.
Sailor Mars' fists were trembling, clenched so tight that they would have ached had she been paying the slightest attention to such things. The Senshi of Fire didn't know yet what their next move was going to be. But there was one thing—and one thing alone—of which she was certain.
For what he had done to Usagi, there would be a reckoning.