Disclaimer: I don't own Ranma 1/2 or Sailor Moon in any way, shape or form. All associated characters, trademarks, etc. are the property of Rumiko Takahashi and Naoko Takeuchi. I'm just telling some stories about them.
Author's Note: Really, really sorry about the long delay on getting this posted. It was mostly due to a combination of Real Life getting in the way, and this chapter requiring quite a bit more editing/rewriting than normal to get to a place where it was what I wanted it to be.
(Plus, since these chapters are only coming out one at a time, I try to at least cover a complete "story unit" as much as I can, so you guys aren't left hanging at awkward points in the narrative. In this case, that ended up making this installment a relatively lengthy chapter, on top of everything else.)
Oh, and one other thing: I've been fleshing out my notes for some of the upcoming stuff, and—similar what happened in The Dark Lords Strike Back—there's a fight scene or two in the future that are making me at least consider pushing this fic up to the "M" rating, now that I'm planning them through in detail. I'm still debating whether to try and tone things down, or just go for the full intensity... but just be aware that if you're following this via the main page that it might disappear at some point if your filters are set to the default only-as-high-as-"T" settings.
At any rate, thanks for being such awesome readers, and hope you enjoy the chapter!
Chapter Eight: Foes in Need
With a huge sack of lacy treasures slung over his diminutive shoulder, the shrunken, perverted old grandmaster of the Anything Goes school balanced on the railing of the apartment balcony, staring up at the undergarments hanging out to dry above him.
His eyes were alight with the thrill of the hunt, and a tiny bit of drool escaped the corner of his mouth. The fine brassieres and panties he was eyeing would make fine additions to his collection. They would be a spot of brightness amidst the loneliness of his old age, and the persecution of those who didn't understand how much more important his needs were than everybody else's.
That was one reason why he had been spending less and less time around Nerima of late, expanding the range of these "training trips" to the surrounding wards. Ranma had been an obstacle to his fun from the very beginning, and the insolent boy was even stronger now than back then.
Not that Happousai wasn't still capable of defeating the young whelp when he got serious, of course! But... it was getting harder and harder. Before, Ranma had only been able to win when Happousai's lust had caused him to make a large mistake. Now he was starting to catch him on even the small mistakes as well.
And for Happousai, those small mistakes were getting easier and easier to make.
The ancient master looked down at one of his withered hands. It seemed so utterly unfair that he had to grow old. There was still so much that he needed to do! He hadn't stolen enough bras and panties yet, hadn't peeped on enough locker rooms, hadn't groped enough girls. He still needed more lingerie in order to truly satisfy himself, needed more naked pictures, needed more time. But with each passing year, he felt the effects of age and his lifetime of debauchery slowly but surely closing in on him, even as he watched Saotome's ungrateful brat grow.
The last time he'd been in Nerima he'd tried to go to one of his familiar stomping grounds—Furinkan high school—intending to drop in on one of the swimming classes and peep on the lovely sight of schoolgirls changing into their swimsuits. Unfortunately, not only had Ranma caught him before he could do it, but by doubly-accursed ill luck his rival Ryouga had been with him at the time as well. They'd ganged up on him, two against one. Even worse, Ranma had been in his female form at the time, and had been entirely willing to exploit it.
The end result was a beating that had left him in a full-body cast for over a week. Once he'd gotten out of it, he'd decided to leave Nerima behind for a while. The pickings were significantly easier out here.
Inch by inch, Happousai closed in on the lacy bounty he was about to claim, anticipation building within him. He had just started to reach out his hand... when a shadow fell over him, the shadow of something enormous hurtling down through the air from above.
The Anything Goes founder hopped nimbly away, as a fur-covered blur plummeted into the balcony, smashing it like it was made of kindling. By the time it crashed into the ground below, Happousai had already lobbed a volley of his Happodaikarin bombs toward that landing point. The resulting explosion blasted the hulking form backward through the apartment wall, and the entire structure teetered dangerously. Many of its supports had been demolished as the gigantic body crashed through the lower story, and a good chunk of the second story had been ripped into as well.
Happousai could hear screams coming from the residents inside. None of them seemed to have been in the direct path of the destruction, but they were still terrified by the sudden instability of their home. Some of them ran into view, trying to flee, and the old man looked eagerly for any sexy young women who he could "rescue" and cop a feel in the process. But the ones he saw were mostly middle aged housewives, so he quickly ignored them, leaving them to escape on their own.
His attacker was out of direct line of sight now, but a deep, rage-filled rumble coming from inside the wrecked apartment building told Happousai that the fight was by no means over. "Why can't he just leave me alone?" the old man groused, irate at having to deal with this endlessly-recurring nuisance yet again. "I don't see what his problem is with the name I gave him anyway! It's a fine name. It's a perfect name! Who doesn't like pantyhose? He should be grateful for my generosity in coming up with it for him!"
As he complained, he considered his options. He could deal with this problem himself... but that was a lot of work that he didn't feel like doing, especially when the foe was as endlessly persistent as this one. He could just run away... but that would mean lying low, hampering the activities he wanted to partake in. And if past experience was any guide his pursuer would soon catch up with him anyway.
Then a malicious grin crossed the old man's face as the perfect solution occurred to him. Because if there was one thing as certain as Pantyhose Taro chasing him to get his name changed, it was the young man's tendency to get into fights with Ranma when the two were in close proximity. And it had been far too long since he had paid his dear students a visit.
He would sneak back to the Tendo dojo. Then, by the time Pantyhose Taro did catch up with him, he would be in a position to dump the problem into Ranma's lap instead. And with the two occupied with each other, it would leave him free to enjoy Nerima and its delights in a way he hadn't been able to for quite a while.
Cackling with delight at the thought of Ranma being saddled with his problem, Happousai darted away, hoping to get some distance before the monstrous warrior extricated himself.
This was going to be fun.
Nervous, fearful excitement built in Beneda's stomach with each step she took, each step that brought her deeper into Juuban, closer to their destination. She had no idea what was going to happen, or what she was going to find there. Countless different scenarios chased each other back and forth through her mind, countless different possibilities. But in the end she knew that only time would tell.
Ranma was there as well, considering that this was all his idea. Ryouga had wanted to come, but considering that their goal was scouting and infiltration, they had decided that his tendency to get lost was too great a liability, and he had grudgingly agreed. They had brought Mousse and Konatsu, however—the blind warrior for his unique method of observation, and the ninja for obvious reasons.
Eventually, they did reach the small café where the Dark Kingdom portal had manifested. Or rather, they reached the place where that café had once stood. The cheerful sign proclaiming its name as "La Crepe" was no longer there, replaced instead by a nondescript building whose sign read "Yukimura Information Processing."
"So... 'Information Processing'? What does a place like that even do?" muttered Ranma, as the four of them drew near it, walking down the opposite side of the street.
"Generic, nondescript, and nearly meaningless," Konatsu murmured in agreement. "Exactly what you would choose for a front that you weren't interested in anyone actually visiting."
"It's definitely no normal office building," added Mousse quietly, as they walked past. "I can sense the layout inside. The outer foyer is normal enough, but as soon as you get past that it's a different story. There are guards patrolling the hallways, security cameras monitoring everything... It looks like your guess was right, Saotome."
Beneda knew from experience that Mousse's description could be trusted implicitly. "Did you sense the portal?" she asked. "Is it really open?"
"Sensing magic isn't... quite like sensing ki, or even a solid object," Mousse explained. "It's... harder to get a handle on. But there's definitely something there, something mystical, right where I remember the portal being."
A thrill ran through the currently-human youma. "What do we do, then?"
"We investigate, like we planned," was Ranma's determined response. "Konatsu, do you think you can get Beneda in?"
The ninja considered the question. "It shouldn't pose a problem. Especially if Mousse can describe the layout to me ahead of time."
Mousse nodded, and the two of them fell into a muted discussion of the details of the small facility—which hallways led to where, how many guards there were, the location of the room from which the security cameras seemed to be monitored. Ranma, for his part, addressed Beneda. "You sure you're up for this?" he asked. "Konatsu could just look around on his own. You don't need to put yourself in danger."
"No. I need to go." Beneda put all the determination she could muster into the words. "I know what it's like on the other side. And if we need to approach another youma, they'd be more likely to listen to me than a human." She hesitated. "And... they're my people. I need to know what's happened to them. I need to do something, if I can."
Ranma nodded. "All right," he said. "Just... be careful over there."
Even as the group from Nerima was observing their target in Juuban, a group from Juuban was observing their target in Nerima.
Sailor Saturn looked down from the edge of the rooftop she was peeking over, surveying as much of the Tendo home as she could. She'd been thinking about this moment ever since what had happened yesterday, trying to figure out what she should do, and now the point of decision had come. Her eyes tracked carefully across the yard for a few seconds, and then she turned back to Sailor Neptune. "You still haven't detected Ranma anywhere nearby?"
"No, not that I've been able to determine." The blue-haired young woman looked down at the Deep Aqua Mirror, frowning. The ancient artifact was a powerful tool, but while it did have some degree of scrying capability, its primarily function was that of a weapon. It didn't possess nearly the same capability for analysis as something like the Mercury Computer.
They had been scouting out the Dark Lords' base by using it to search for specific foes that they knew about. So far, though, the only ones the mirror had been able to confirm as present were Ryouga and the girl named Akane. There were also two middle-aged men playing shogi on the back porch in plain view, with no mirror needed to detect their presence.
"Well this works in our favor, doesn't it?" Sailor Uranus asked. "If they really are splitting their forces then this will be an easier fight."
Sailor Saturn turned back to the house below, not answering immediately as she considered this new development. She had expected to face the Dark Lords together when she agreed to go on this foray. But now, hearing that Ryouga might be more or less alone down there, without Ranma to interfere...
She looked up abruptly. "I want to try talking to him."
Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune looked over at her, their eyebrows going up in surprise. Sailor Pluto did as well, though she didn't seem nearly so shocked by the young girl's announcement. Sailor Saturn continued to earnestly make her case. "It's the perfect opportunity. Without Ranma around to interfere, we might be able to talk, just the two of us."
"And what do you think that will change?" asked the Senshi of Time, her voice measured. "We've already seen what they're capable of. Do you really think you can convince him to abandon his plans?"
"I don't know," admitted Sailor Saturn. "But Chibi-Usa did say that something like that had happened before, and... she thinks it might work this time. If there's even a chance to end this without killing him, I want to try."
"Even if that puts your own life at risk?" asked Sailor Neptune.
Sailor Saturn's memory went back to the attack of the grey creatures, remembering the gut-wrenching sight of those blades about to slash into her until Ryouga grabbed her and pulled her to safety. "Yes," she answered, without hesitation.
"This sounds like a bad idea to me," Sailor Uranus said, grimacing. "And going alone is even worse. If you're determined to do this you should at least let us come with you, in case they try to spring a trap!"
"I'll be less threatening as only one person instead of four," countered Sailor Saturn. "And if they do try to turn this into a trap, it will be better to have backup outside the trap that they don't know about."
The other Outer Senshi looked at her, considering what she had said. She looked back at them, her eyes filled with her resolve. Then Sailor Pluto sighed. "All right," she said. "But remember, they have more methods of attack than just the obvious ones. We still don't know how Ranma did what he did to Sailor Moon. Be careful."
"I will." With that, Sailor Saturn rose to her feet and walked forward until she dropped off the edge of the roof, falling to the street below. From there she walked over to the main gate in the wall surrounding the compound, took a deep breath, and then knocked several times.
For a while, silence was her only reply. Eventually, though, she heard footsteps approaching the gate along the walkway on the other side. She tensed a little in spite of herself. She had no illusions that this would be easy. If it wasn't Ryogua himself who answered, she would have to somehow convince one of his minions to convey her message to him. Would she be able to do it? She didn't know. This could all devolve into violence before she even got the chance to speak with the Dark Lord.
Then the gate opened, to reveal a woman wearing an apron, her long hair hanging over her shoulder in a ponytail. "Ah, good morning," she said happily, not seeming to be put off in the slightest by the Sailor Senshi uniform. "Is there something I can help you with?"
"I... need to talk to Ryouga," Sailor Saturn answered. "Would it be possible for me to see him?"
The woman blinked. "Why of course!" she said, opening the gate wider and gesturing inside. "Come right in! It's so nice to see some of Ryouga's friends come and visit him!" That remark earned her an odd look from Sailor Saturn, but the Senshi refrained from comment. The two of them walked back through the yard and into the house proper, the woman leading the way. The young Senshi was still on edge, a part of her surprised that her attempt at an olive branch had been received this easily.
Though it didn't seem that everyone here was quite so sanguine about her presence as the woman who'd answered the door. As the two of them went by a doorway leading into the kitchen, she saw a short-haired young woman—who looked maybe a year or two older than Ryouga—drinking a glass of water. Their eyes met as the Sailor Senshi walked past, causing the astonished girl to spit out a mouthful of the water she'd been drinking, coughing violently as the unexpected sight caused some of the liquid to go down the wrong tube.
Her guide, however, led her on, into what appeared to be a family room. "Oh, Ryouga," she called out. "There's someone here to see you."
For indeed, there he was. He was sitting with a pensive expression on his face that suggested he was thinking about something that worried him. The Dark Lord who had been both her opponent and her rescuer. Ryouga looked up, and his eyes went wide as he caught sight of Sailor Saturn standing there. He slowly got to his feet, obviously wary, but also not making any threatening moves.
Now that the moment had come, she found that her words caught in her throat. Everything Chibi-Usa had proclaimed so confidently about his attraction to her seemed so unbelievable now that she had actually come to the point of looking him in the eye and testing it. Did she really think that she could convince him to give up on all his plans, to stop fighting against them?
But despite her doubts, she pressed on anyway. "I'm not here to fight!" she assured him hurriedly. "I mean... I don't want to fight. I just want to talk to you."
She did not miss the look of stunned hope that lit up his expression at her words. "...really?" he said, as though he could scarcely dare believe it. "That's... that's great! I'd really, really like that."
Standing with his hands clasped behind his back, Doctor Metzger watched through the one-way mirror as Davidson's mercenaries finished their morning combat tests. It was mostly a formality at this point. This group's addiction to the serum and the psychotic tendencies that accompanied it had increased beyond the point of salvageability. Still he watched them, trying to glean some clues as to where he had gone wrong this time. The theory had been so perfect! It galled him that the fruits of this project remained beyond his reach.
As he watched, the mercenaries filed out of the testing area under the watchful eye of a dozen guards with heavy-caliber assault rifles. This was in addition to the room's automated defenses and containment measures, which could lock the testing area down in seconds. They deposited their unused injectors of the serum into the receptacle that Metzger had assigned for that purpose, then were searched thoroughly by the guards, and then exited the room to return to their quarters.
The elderly German doctor sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose in vexation. Worse than this particular failure was the fact that Tanizaki was about to cut funding for this project entirely, meaning that these last, unstable test subjects would soon be disposed of, and he would never get the chance to figure out where he had gone wrong. Metzger wracked his brain, trying to figure out a rationale for delaying the inevitable, but was unable to come up with one.
Although... it was slightly odd. The mercenaries hadn't been quite so hard to manage today as they usually were. Apart from a handful of shouting matches with the guards, they had been... unusually focused this session. Could it be a sign of improvement? Metzger doubted it, but it was something to consider...
Either way, the doctor decided to take it as a good omen. "Have the full report from this session sent to my office," he ordered one of his aides. "And otherwise, don't disturb me unless it's urgent."
It was not long before Davidson and his soldiers reached the quarters they had been assigned. The guards escorting them remained outside, while the mercenaries filed through the door. Each soldier went to their assigned bunk in silence and sat down. Tension hung heavy in the air, in anticipation of what was about to happen. Davidson knew that the course of action he had ordered earlier that morning was drastic... but he was also certain that at this point, drastic action was the only way he could get his men out of this situation.
The mercenary captain's eyes were locked on a particular member of his unit, a wiry, dark-haired man. Once out of sight of the guards, the soldier wasted no time in ramming two fingers down his mouth, forcing the gag reflex... until at last, he vomited up one of the serum injectors. An extra one that he had palmed while taking his normal allotment. He had swallowed it during a moment when some of his comrades had started a shouting match with the guards as a distraction, and now he was ready to put it to use.
The soldier ripped off the cap and pressed down on the other end of the small tube, causing the injection needle to emerge. Davidson—along with all the others—watched with hungry eyes as he did so, fighting back the sudden urge to leap at him and try to take the serum for themselves. But that would mean disaster, and destroy any chance they had of securing an ongoing supply, so they managed to resist.
The wiry mercenary jammed the needle into his arm, and immediately his expression became savage and animalistic. He lunged toward the door to their quarters almost faster than Davidson's eyes could track, and seconds later he heard the sound of ripping, of tearing, of bone-crushing impacts and a single choked-off scream. None of the guards even got the chance to fire their weapons.
Davidson raced out of their quarters, followed by the rest of his men. Outside, the walls were smeared with blood, the broken bodies of the guards strewn everywhere. Davidson snatched up one of the fallen assault rifles, while the other mercenaries similarly grabbed whatever weapons they could scavenge from the corpses.
Even before they finished, alarm klaxons began to blare around them. Their actions had been noticed by the guards monitoring the security cameras. Already, Davidson was calculating how much time that left them. He was confident in his team's ability to carve their way through any of the guards stationed on this level, but they had to be out of here before Zhang was sent after them.
Fortunately, Zhang would be with Kazuo, and it would take time for the alert to travel up the chain of command and reach the very top. Especially since the lower ranks would be loathe to expose their ineptitude by immediately escalating it that high, until it became apparent to them that they simply couldn't handle it themselves. Davidson figured they had at least ten minutes before the Chinese assassin showed up.
He smiled a toothy smile. That was more than enough time for his men to accomplish their objectives, meet at the rendezvous point, blast a hole in this damned skyscraper and escape out into the city beyond.
"Everyone head to your targets!" he barked over the cacophony. "Team One, you hit the equipment lockers near the testing area and grab all the gear and weapons you can carry! Team Two, you sweep the labs and take every vial of the serum you can find! Team Three, you're with me. We're going to go have a little chat with Metzger."
Chewing on her lower lip, Beneda stared into the shop window of the building three stores down from their target, trying to look as though she were window-shopping. It had been several minutes since Konatsu had entered the building that held the Dark Kingdom portal. She didn't know what he had planned, but she swallowed her worries and put her trust in the ninja prodigy's infiltration skills.
Second after second went by, until without warning she heard Konatsu's voice in her ear. "Everything is ready, Miss Beneda."
Despite the fact that she had been expecting his return, Beneda still couldn't suppress a small yelp as she whirled around. Konatsu was standing behind her, of course. "All right," she said. Then she paused, and asked hesitantly. "Am I going to need to sneak around or anything once we get inside?"
Konatsu shook his head. "I've already taken care of all that," he assured her. "Just follow me."
The two of them walked down the street, soon reaching the door to the office building that had once been a café. Konatsu opened the door and stepped inside, Beneda hurrying behind him. They now stood in a small lobby, with a receptionist sitting at a desk on the opposite wall. Beneda looked at Konatsu, wondering what excuse they were going to make to her, but the ninja simply ignored the office worker.
It was only then that Beneda noticed how unnaturally still the receptionist was. She was still breathing, but her eyes stared vacantly ahead, and she did not otherwise move. A sudden suspicion arose in the currently-human youma and she stepped closer, craning her neck to look around the silent woman. Just as she suspected, there was an extremely thin acupuncture needle inserted into the back of her neck. "I know this pressure point..." Beneda murmured, remembering it from among the countless ones that Doctor Tofu had taught her.
Konatsu nodded. "She will regain consciousness once I remove the needle, with no memory of anything that happened while it was inserted."
This pressure point was something she had learned about in theory, although actually hitting it correctly required phenomenal precision. Beneda suspected that she would have trouble doing it even on a willing subject, but Konatsu had managed to use it as an attack. And if his comment about having "taken care of all that" meant what she thought it did... "You incapacitated everyone in the building like this?"
Her words caused Konatsu to look away modestly. "If they had been resisting it might have been difficult," he said. "But it's not too hard when they never even realize that you're there." Despite herself, Beneda felt a small shiver run through her. Considering the ninja's mild demeanor, it was all to easy to forget just how dangerous he truly was. Ordinary guards and office workers had never even stood a chance.
Konatsu reached behind the receptionist's desk and pressed a button, causing the door on the right side of the lobby to buzz and unlock. The two of them went through into a short hallway. Beneda jumped a little when she saw the guard clad in heavy ballistic armor standing there, as though in the middle of his rounds... but of course he was staring eerily off into space as well. The ninja took an ID card from the man's belt as he went past and gave it to Beneda.
"This way, please." The ninja led her into a locker room halfway down the hallway, and pointed her to a rack where unused uniforms and armor were hanging, like those worn by the guard outside. "It will be easier if you can move unsuspected," Konatsu said. "We do not know what we will find on the other side."
Beneda nodded in agreement, pulling on the uniform and armor over her current clothes. Konatsu helped her put her silver hair so that it was concealed entirely by the helmet that was part of the getup. Combined with the bulky armor, it gave her a fairly androgynous look, which Konatsu then supplemented by the liberal use of a makeup kit he'd brought with him. Beneda didn't know how many female security guards Tanizaki hired, but she figured it was better not to attract attention.
Once they had finished with that, they made their way to their true target, the door on the far end of the hallway. In order to gain access, she had to swipe the ID card Konatsu had taken from the guard. The room on the other side was filled with computers and various kinds of instrumentation, but Beneda's attention was arrested by the one familiar sight in the midst of it all.
The pulsating black hole in reality that was the portal to the Dark Kingdom.
"They really did it..." she breathed, old memories washing over her, memories from a life she'd thought she'd buried long ago. "They opened it again..."
She and Konatsu exchanged a quick glance. Then, taking a deep breath, she stepped forward into the dimensional gateway and she felt the magic take hold of her.
From his position sitting on a nearby rooftop, Ranma sensed Beneda's presence suddenly vanish. A few moments later, Konatsu's presence followed. The pigtailed fighter let out a breath. "Well, they're through."
Mousse nodded. "Now all that's left for us is to keep watch on this side, and ensure that nothing here jeopardizes their way back."
"Right." An uncomfortable silence fell as Ranma wondered what those two had found on the other side. But as minute after minute went by, he forced his thoughts away from fruitless worry. It wouldn't help Beneda or Konatsu any.
Besides, there was something else he needed to take care of, now that there was no one else around besides him and Mousse.
"So..." he began, trying for a moment to think of the best way to broach the topic, before finally deciding to ignore subtlety. "That Zhang guy. It sounded like you two had some history together."
Mousse's frame went rigid. A few more seconds of strained silence passed before the hidden weapons master answered. "Leave it alone, Saotome. It has nothing to do with you."
"The hell it doesn't." Ranma could tell this was a difficult subject for Mousse, but he had no time to play around. "He's one of the guys who set us up! All our lives are on the line here, so if you know something about him, you gotta spill. I want to know who this guy is... and I want to know why you're so hell-bent on killing him."
The hidden weapons master made no reply. Ranma waited and waited, until finally he spoke again. "Look, I need to know what we're dealing with here. If you don't want to talk about it, I can go ask Shampoo and see if she knows—"
"No!" Mousse shot to his feet and whirled around, and Ranma could see fear in his sightless eyes. Fear, and guilt. "No. Shampoo doesn't know anything. She can't hear anything about this. Please, Saotome."
Ranma said nothing, only fixed the other martial artist with his gaze. Eventually, Mousse let out a breath and sank back down. For almost a full minute he said nothing. Ranma didn't press him, but neither did he look away. Finally, Mousse spoke. "It was... seven years ago now," he began. "Eight, if you count the year we lost when the world rewound. I was twelve at the time, but even back then I was desperate to impress Shampoo however I could. And that meant that I was desperate to become a stronger fighter. Unfortunately, my options for advanced training were... limited."
"What do you mean?" Ranma asked, puzzled. "The Joketsuzoku have all kinds of crazy stuff like that, right?"
"Not for me," was Mousse's reply. "It's called the 'Village of Women Heroes' for a reason, Saotome. Not just because it rolls easily off the tongue."
"They wouldn't train you?" Ranma asked.
Mousse shrugged. "Oh, don't misunderstand, they were willing enough to teach me how to fight. But the kind of training I was convinced I needed? Ancestral styles? Secret techniques? The kind of thing that might impress a girl who had Cologne as her teacher?" He shook his head. "Those were almost always handed down from mother to daughter. And I had given them no good reason to make an exception for me. So instead... I looked elsewhere."
"There were other tribes in the area, of course, but relations with them were... tense, at best. I didn't expect that they would be any more forthcoming with their secrets. But there was another place I had heard of in the area. Not a tribe, but a school. One that took in anyone with enough talent. I decided to go there, to learn their style."
Ranma raised his eyebrows a little. "What style was it?"
"The master of the school called his style the Four Arts of Assassination," said the blind warrior, his clouded eyes staring off into the past, at something visible only to him. "The Art of Poison, dealing death through food or cup or the smallest nick. The Art of Marksmanship, firing arrows along impossible paths to strike foes at immense distances. The Art of Blades, striking down the enemy with sword in hand, face to face."
"And finally... the simplest, most basic art. The first one of the four to be taught, and the one that undergirds the rest. The art that allows an assassin to infiltrate anywhere they need to, while carrying poison or bow or blade, without anyone being the wiser."
It was, of course, obvious to Ranma where this was going. "The Art of Hidden Weapons."
A mirthless smile crossed Mousse's face. "Even so. Not that I understood what kind of people I was joining myself to. Not really. I was just a stupid, stupid child, who had heard that the school produced fighters with fearful skill. That was all I needed to know. I left for the school and begged them to take me in."
"What I had learned among the Joketsuzoku was enough to pass the initial trials and assure me a place as a candidate for full discipleship. Then began the most brutal training I have ever received. Several times I almost died, but I pressed on, certain that this would be the key to making Shampoo look my way."
"Not that I was alone during this. Each of us was paired with a partner for our first year of training. We ate together, practiced together, watched each others' backs constantly. It was, after all, common practice for teams to try and kill their rivals to improve their standing in the eyes of the master. We had to trust each other absolutely; each of us was the only friend the other had in that place."
Ranma frowned. "Who was your partner?"
"His name... was Yingjie," answered the blind master. "He was the son of a poor farmer in the area. His father had sent him to the school because they couldn't afford another mouth to feed. And he was a prodigy, a natural genius at the martial arts." Mousse paused, then shook his head. "In terms of his skills, at least. In terms of his mindset... he was too soft. Far, far too soft for the place in which his family had abandoned him."
"Between the two of us, though, we managed to make it through the first year, far outshining all the other trainees. It was well-known to everyone that we were favored to attain full discipleship at the year's end. But as the day approached, Yingjie overheard some of the senior disciples talking, and learned something about what that graduation ceremony would entail. Something they had not told us."
"The master of that school believed in quality over quantity, you see. He would only ever send one of his graduates on a given assignment anyway, so he wanted to ensure that the one he sent would be peerless. In skill... and even more importantly, in absolute obedience to his orders."
A sick feeling began to grow in Ranma's stomach. This wasn't the first time he'd heard about fanatical schools like the one Mousse was describing, and he could already guess what kind of final test a place like that would be likely to use. "They were going to make you fight each other?"
Mousse nodded. "To the death. But Yingjie... wasn't willing to go through with it. He wanted us to run instead. So late that night, the two of us snuck away and fled."
Ranma winced. "Probably didn't go over too well, did it? Those kind of schools... they're not very happy when the students they've trained run out on them before they get a return on their investment."
A hollow laugh escaped Mousse's lips. "This one was no exception. Our master sent one of his killers after us. He sent his son, in fact. His protégé, the most brilliant student he had ever trained. He sent Zhang."
"Zhang caught up to us quickly, and was on us before we knew it. We tried to fight back... but we were no match for him. He toyed with us, mocked us for our weakness, mocked us for fleeing the death-duel. Yingjie... Yingjie shouted back at him. Something about how we were friends, how we would never go along with something like that, no matter what."
Mousse halted in his story, his expression haunted. After a long silence, Ranma spoke quietly. "What happened?"
"He was supposed to kill both of us," the hidden weapons master grated out. His hands were clenched into fists, his voice taut and forced. "But even back then he was growing disdainful of his father's authority. And what Yingjie said... it sparked some kind of vicious whim in him. He cut us both with a poisoned blade. A blade that held a slow-acting but fatal poison. Then he turned and left, laughing at us. But... he also left behind a single dose of the antidote. Enough to save one person."
Ranma looked at Mousse, sitting there opposite him, alive. "You mean... you..."
"I attacked my 'friend' to save my own life," was Mousse's flat reply. "When it came down to it... I was just a coward, too afraid of dying. Zhang knew, I think. He could see it in me. And he wanted to force us to see it too—what I really was."
There was nothing Ranma could say to that. In the silence that followed, Mousse reached into his sleeve and drew out a Chinese jian sword in a white sheathe, with the number "four" engraved at the hilt. "Zhang left this behind as well," the blind warrior said. "These blades are given to a student of the Four Arts after they complete their final initiation. He must have thought it appropriate. Considering that I ended up passing it after all."
"Look... man..." Ranma began, struggling for words before pressing on. "You were just a kid back then, you know? I mean... okay, you panicked, and... damn, I know that must be hard to live with, but..." His voice trailed off, not even sure himself of what he was trying to say.
Mousse's expression became as hard as stone, a mask of solid hate. "Well I'm not a scared child anymore," he snarled. "It won't make up for what I did... but I'm still going to kill Zhang for his part in it."
A worried look crossed Ranma's face. "Just... be careful, okay?" he said. "If he really can poison someone with just a scratch, then he's not the kind of fighter you can afford to lose your cool against. If you keep letting him bait you like you did yesterday, then you're the one who's going to end up dead."
"It won't go like that next time," was Mousse's short reply. "Next time, I end it."
"Is it really going to be the end, though?" Ranma asked. "You said there was a whole school of these guys. How much do you want to bet that Zhang isn't the only one that Tanizaki hired?"
"No." Mousse's voice was filled with absolute certainty. "Zhang is the only one that Tanizaki has. Because Zhang is the only one left. A few years after I... fled, I heard that someone had started picking off their assassins on their missions, one by one. Starting with the lowest ranking, and working upward. By the time it reached the highest levels they knew it was Zhang who was doing it, but there was nothing they could do to stop him."
"He had decided to strike out on his own as an assassin, away from his father's control. But instead of running for his life like I did, he made his departure by removing any threat of reprisal, and taking the legacy and prestige of the Four Arts of Assassination into himself. He is the style now, all that remains of it."
Then Mousse clenched his hand around the hilt of the blade he held. "Well... all that remains except for a failed student who built his entire style around their least skill. A failed student who probably only survived because Zhang had forgotten about him entirely. But this failed student is going to kill that bastard somehow. Whatever it takes."
Beneda, wearing her guard disguise, walked down the rocky tunnels of the Dark Kingdom. It was unsettling to be back after so long, and even more unsettling to see the changes in the once-familiar surroundings. The stone corridors, once patrolled by youma, were now guarded by humans wearing the same armor as she was, and armed with the same assault weaponry. Choke points in the tunnels had been fortified by heavy machine gun turrets, and it did not escape Beneda's notice that they were arrayed facing away from the portal.
These defenses were not designed to prevent intruders from entering. They were designed to prevent the inhabitants from leaving.
Konatsu had vanished immediately upon coming through the portal, disappearing into the shadows, and even though Beneda knew he was somewhere close by, she could detect no trace of him. For her part, nobody paid a guard like her much heed, and she was able to move unhindered toward the central chamber. What she saw there caused her to draw in a quick, shocked breath.
Beryl's castle, the giant, skull-shaped edifice that had once towered over the central cavern, had been destroyed. It lay in ruins, blown apart in countless places by explosions and other battle damage. But although that structure had been destroyed, many much less impressive ones had been added on the cavern floor, closer to her. Most of them were little more than glorified shacks, row upon row of dingy, prefabricated buildings. All of them were encircled by a large electric fence, with manned machine gun towers spaced around its perimeter.
As she drew nearer, she saw that there were youma on the inside of the fence. Not just youma, though. She noticed several other types of monsters as well, most of which she did not recognize. Some were standing clumped together in groups, mostly segregated by species, while others shuffled to and fro, aimlessly milling about. Farther on, she saw a half-dozen human guards herding a mixed group of monsters into one of the larger buildings, one of the few that were made of more permanent construction.
Beneda's heart hammered in her chest at what she was seeing, but she forced herself to keep walking so as not to arouse any attention. She approached the main gate in the electric fence, and was waved through by a bored-looking guard after a barely-even-cursory glance at her ID card. The gate swung open, and she stepped through into the compound. Close up, she could see that each prisoner had a bulky metal collar around their neck with an ominous-looking device attached.
I have to find someone who can tell me more about what happened here, how Tanizaki did all this, she thought. If I could just find a youma I knew... and somehow convince her of my identity...
It was a tall order, but she was determined to attempt it. She walked deeper into the cluster of dingy buildings, which seemed to be the living quarters for the prisoners, until she was out of direct view from the surrounding guards. Then suddenly, after less than a minute of walking, a youma stepped around the corner of the building ahead of her, blocking her path.
Beneda tensed. She recognized the red-and-pink swirls on the youma's skin, her pointed ears and bald head. It was Karkala. She had never known the other youma very well, but they had met in passing once or twice during their training. Right now, though, it seemed that the other youma was intent on a confrontation.
The currently-human youma raised her hands, attempting to somehow persuade her of what was actually going on. "Look... I know this sounds crazy, but... I'm not really your enemy. In fact, I might even be able to help you."
Beneda had been expecting skepticism, had been expecting to need proofs that, even if she heard them, the other youma might not believe. So she was caught entirely off-guard when Karkala simply nodded. "I know," she said. "I've been waiting for you. But this isn't the place to talk. You need to meet our leader. And your friend in hiding can come too."
The statements left Beneda completely flabbergasted, her jaw hanging open. What...? How...? she wondered. She believes me, just like that? And she's been waiting for me? And how on earth did she sense Konatsu?
Although... there had been something odd about how she had said that last statement. Something Beneda couldn't quite put her finger on. Such speculation was cut off, however, when she noticed that Konatsu was now standing directly behind the other youma, frowning. "We will go with you," the ninja said. "But—"
"Gah!" The youma let out a startled yelp and made an involuntary jump straight into the air. She whirled around on landing, clearly taken aback by the ninja's sudden appearance. That was when it clicked for Beneda. The mysterious youma hadn't actually sensed Konatsu. When she had called him out earlier, it had been without knowing where he actually was. That had been the odd inflection in her voice when she'd said it, that of someone making a statement based on faith rather than personal experience.
As though she had been reading from a script given to her by someone else.
Beneda and Konatsu exchanged glances, and she knew that the ninja had not missed that either. Something very strange was going on here. Karkala, meanwhile, had regained her composure and was motioning them to follow her. "There's a housing unit not far from here that we use as our headquarters," she explained as they went. "Our people have arranged to keep everyone away from the area except our most trusted members, so you'll have privacy."
"Who are you?" Konatsu inquired. "A resistance force?"
"Until now, we've mostly focused on surviving this place and keeping the peace," was Karkala's answer. "Our leader got most of the youma behind him not long after he was thrown in here, but he also had us reach out to the other races, tried to stop as much of the infighting as he could. The daimons had it worst of all; Metzger never got their formula entirely right, so all the new ones he makes... don't usually last more than a month or two. We try to to help them as much as we can, but..."
"How did all this happen?" asked Beneda, still perplexed. "How did Tanizaki do all this?"
"There wasn't much we could do to stop him," replied Karkala grimly. "We'd lost most of our strong fighters in Beryl's war against the humans, leaving us with only scraps and remnants. And with the Queen gone, there was a power struggle over who would rule in her place. We almost didn't even notice that someone was attacking the seal on the Dark Kingdom."
"We could tell that whoever it was, it was a sorcerer of immense power... and that they were channeling something far more powerful than themselves in a protracted ritual. Even after we detected it, it was another two months of constant hammering before they managed to break through. But when they did... it was barely even a fight."
"Human soldiers poured in through the Arctic portal, stronger than normal humans, pumped up on some kind of drug. They had that sorcerer backing them too, a man named Ekim. There was an assassin as well, one that could strike anywhere, with nothing we could do to stop him." Karkala shook her head. "We never even had a chance. All resistance was crushed inside a day."
"That was when Tanizaki brought in Doctor Metzger." The youma's face darkened in an expression of black hatred. "He was the one who set up this camp, organized the security and all the damned experiments they do on us. I heard that Tanizaki recruited him specifically for his expertise at 'research' like this. There were rumors going around between the human guards that Metzger used to be in charge of a place like this once before, many years ago in the human world."
Beneda clenched her fist. "They have some youma at Tanizaki's skyscraper too. That's how we figured out there might be something going on here."
"Those are the specimens that Metzger thought were the most promising," spat Karkala. "He takes the ones he's most interested in somewhere outside, so he can keep them close at hand and work on them himself when he feels like it. The ones here are the ones he thinks he's figured out, or the ones whose testing he leaves to his underlings."
By this time, they had arrived at one of the shabby buildings, this one with two creatures—a youma and a type that Beneda didn't recognize—standing guard by the door. They parted to allow the three of them through, and shut the door behind them. The place didn't look much better on the inside than on the outside, the most prominent features being the rows upon rows of plain, uncomfortable looking bunks. Many of those bunks held monsters similar to the one who had been standing guard outside, but these were all in very poor health. Their skin was in various stages of crumbling, disintegrating into dust around painful-looking white lesions. These must be the daimons Karkala was talking about, Beneda thought.
There were several youma and a couple other types of monsters tending the slowly dying daimons, but Karkala led them over to a different figure who was doing the same thing, bent over with his back toward them. "I've brought them as you told me to, sir," she said, obvious reverence in her voice.
At her words, the figure stood up. As he turned around, Beneda realized with a start that he was a human. And a young human at that. He was probably a year or two younger than Ranma and Ryogua, though his pain-filled eyes and haggard, weary features made him look older. Nevertheless, he offered them a warm smile and walked over to meet them, limping as he did so. In addition to his leg, Beneda noticed many vicious scars along any parts of his body that she could see. He's been tortured... she realized.
Her mind whirled with questions, and she asked the most obvious ones right off. "Who are you? And how on earth did a human end up with the Dark Kingdom youma following him?"
"Speak with respect!" snapped Karkala, before the intended recipient of the questions could answer. "You're not talking to some mere human. You speak to one of the progenitors of the very youma race!"
Beneda blinked, puzzled. She understood what Karkala meant by that, but... "That doesn't make any sense," she said. "Every youma knows that the Seven all died in the attack on the Moon Kingdom, millennia ago."
"Actually..." the human interjected, "...that piece of common knowledge turned out to be wrong. In fact, Queen Serenity chose to spare the Seven, sending them forward—in human bodies—along with her own subjects."
That pronouncement prompted an incredulous stare from Beneda. She glanced over to Karkala, looking for some sign that this was some kind of elaborate joke, but the youma looked deadly serious. Beneda looked back to the human. "Then... you are...?"
"You would know me as Bunbo," the human told her. "My captors, on the other hand, usually refer to me as 'Project Janus'. But these days... I prefer to go by the name of Urawa Ryo."
Ryouga looked across the Tendo family room at the young Senshi of Ruin and Rebirth, completely thrown for a loop by her sudden yet non-aggressive appearance. After everything that had happened at the warehouse, he was astonished that she was still willing to talk things out. That wasn't a reaction Ryouga encountered much in his usual escapades around Nerima. Still, if she really was willing to hear him out, it might be a chance to explain this whole misunderstanding, which was an unimaginable stroke of good fortune.
The lost boy tried to figure out where to begin, but Sailor Saturn beat him to it before he could get his thoughts in order. "So it really was you?" she asked, looking pointedly at the bandannas around his head and his now-uninjured arm. "The piglet that I healed?"
Ryouga hesitated, then nodded glumly, not seeing much chance of hiding it. "It's... a curse that I have," he told her, not wanting her to get the wrong idea about his hated transformation. "That piglet is just a form I get forced into sometimes. But... yes, that was me back there."
"Then why?" the Senshi blurted out, as though the words had been suppressed for a long time before finally getting the chance to be asked. "Why did you carry me back like that, after I'd been knocked unconscious? Why did you save me from those grey creatures? Why?"
Well, as complicated as everything else was, that was a simple enough question to answer. "Because I didn't want you to get hurt," he told her earnestly. "You have to believe me—I've never wanted that."
Sailor Saturn jerked her gaze away from his slightly, his words seeming to trouble her for some reason. "How can you say that?" she asked. "You're helping people who do want to hurt me. People who want to hurt my friends! What Ranma did to Sailor Moon—"
"That wasn't us!" Ryouga shook his head. "I know it looked that way. But I swear to you on my honor as a martial artist that what happened to Sailor Moon at the warehouse wasn't our doing! There's someone else, the same one behind the grey creatures. He's targeting you, and they're trying to frame us for it so they can stay in the shadows!"
The Senshi regarded him, her expression wary, as though trying to determine how much trust to give. Ryouga pressed on, rattling off everything he could remember of what Ranma had deduced from his encounter with their opponent. "His name is Tanizaki Kazuo. We think he wants to steal Sailor Moon's power for himself. He doesn't want you to know about him until he's sure he can take you on. But he's almost ready, and what happened to Sailor Moon back then was a test run of whatever it is he's planning to use."
"How do you know all this?" asked Sailor Saturn, frowning. "Do you have any evidence I could show the others?"
"We know because we tracked down an agent of theirs that was watching the warehouse and forced a confrontation," Ryouga explained. "And proof... no, we don't have any. Not yet. But we're trying to get some as fast as we can. That's where Ranma is right now, investigating this guy some more."
The lost boy hesitated, trying to think of what else he could say. He knew that the Senshi themselves were in danger from Tanizaki, especially if they didn't believe that the threat existed. He had to use this chance to convince them to take precautions, even if they weren't completely sure of his claims.
And Sailor Saturn herself—the one reaching out to them—was likely in even more peril than the rest. She was, after all, the one who had been specifically targeted by that ambush of Tanizaki's grey creatures, and almost killed. He'd saved her that one time, but this young girl was still likely in particular danger, her extreme power doubtless making her one of Tanizaki's primary targets.
"Look," he urged her. "Even if you don't believe me, you should at least warn your friends about what I said. Being extra careful won't hurt anything, right? I'm worried that he might to attack one of you again. Especially you."
For some odd reason, her face flushed slightly red after he said that, and an awkward silence fell between them. "Still..." she said at length, in a smaller voice than before. "Even if all that is true... even if that one attack against Sailor Moon wasn't your fault... what about everything else? The first time you fought, you and Ranma told Sailor Moon yourselves that you came to our world to conquer it. And you were just about to succeed when she stopped you! Are you going to tell me all that was this 'Tanizaki' person's fault as well?"
Ryouga sighed. "No," he admitted. "No, that part... it really was us. But you have to understand—"
He was interrupted, however, by the sound of a loud gasp coming from the doorway. He glanced over... and his blood ran cold at who he saw standing there.
"A... a... a Sailor Senshi..." Happousai whispered almost reverentially, as the oversized black bag that had been slung over his shoulder tumbled unnoticed from his fingers. "I... I never thought I'd actually see one in the flesh..."
His hungry eyes roamed up and down Sailor Saturn's bare legs, then over the rest of her body, without making the slightest attempt at disguising it, causing the girl to back up a few steps in revulsion. "...Ryouga?" she asked, uncertain about the sudden turn events had taken.
Ryouga surged forward, interposing himself between the Anything Goes grandmaster and the Sailor Senshi. "What the hell do you think you're doing, old man?" he demanded. "I'm warning you right now, if you try anything, the beating Ranma and I gave you last time is going to look like nothing compared to what you'll get!" Inwardly, though, he was cursing up a storm. This was bad. Happousai was uncontrollable and unpredictable at the best of times, but seeing a Sailor Senshi seemed to have triggered a fetish beyond the usual, if that was even possible.
It came as no surprise when his threat was ignored. "How could anyone be so cruel?" Happousai asked, a glint of malice entering his eyes. "To stand in the way of such a wonderful, blissful pleasure for a poor old man such as myself... such a nasty act must be punished!" He lunged at Ryouga, leaping through the air, intent on removing the obstacle between him and the mini-skirted defender of love and justice.
Ryouga tried to intercept him with a punch, but the tiny old master caught Ryouga's wrist as it came, using that grip to flip himself up toward his opponent's face faster than the lost boy could react. He kicked Ryouga in the side of the jaw, flinging the young man cartwheeling away. Ceiling and floor changed places multiple times in his parabolic arc, but Ryouga still saw Happousai land before he did and immediately shoot forward again, this time going straight for Sailor Saturn with a delirious cry of "Sweeto!"
"Shi Shi Hokodan!" Ryouga drew on his readily-abundant despair at the turn things had taken and unleashed it back at Happousai despite being in mid-cartwheel. The ki attack blindsided the enraptured old man, blasting him away before he could get near Sailor Saturn. Happousai hit the ground in a skidding roll, quickly regaining his feet. His eyes were flaring with wrath, and he had a lit Happodaikarin in each hand, both of which he promptly hurled at Ryouga.
They never reached their target. Sailor Saturn—her Silence Glaive now summoned and in hand, and the confusion gone from her face—stepped in front of their trajectory, a wall of energy springing into existence in front of her. The bombs bounced off the shield and then detonated, filling the air with smoke and flame, but causing no harm to their intended target.
Like a tiny, black-clad cannonball, Happousai came shooting out of the smoke. He angled around the energy barrier, then ricocheted off the wall to come in at Sailor Saturn from the side. But Ryouga was back on his feet now, and with a snarl he launched himself forward again, redoubling his efforts to intercept. And this time Sailor Saturn joined him in the attack, her glaive swinging, spinning and slashing.
Not only did the demented old master now have to dodge two dangerous fighters, but—even better—one of them was the exact girl with whom he was currently enthralled. It took only a few seconds of combined assault before Ryouga saw the opening he needed. Happousai's gaze lingered just a little bit too long on the Sailor Senshi during a particularly acrobatic dodge, and the lost boy took ruthless advantage of it, his fist crashing into Happousai and punching him through a nearby wall.
Ryouga followed without hesitation. His directional impairment meant he couldn't risk taking indirect routes, so he simply plowed through the wall himself in direct pursuit, turning the Happousai-sized hole into a Ryouga-sized one. He continued to batter the ancient old master with blow after blow, slamming punches and kicks into Happousai's airborne form in a constant barrage of pain. This was the key to fighting the old pervert; wait for his inevitable slip-up, and then hit him with everything you had, without giving him the slightest chance to recover.
The lost boy's destructive charge tore through another wall, and then another, wooden splinters filling the air behind him. Soon the two of them exploded out of the Tendo home entirely, allowing Ryouga to grab the old man and hurl him straight down into the earth, raining down blow after pulverizing blow to pin him there.
It had not been easy from Sailor Uranus to just sit there on the rooftop, watching Sailor Saturn walk into the lion's den while she and the other two Outer Senshi did nothing. She was convinced that this was a mistake; the Dark Lords would have any number of chances to turn the tables on her through trickery and surprise. She's already gone through so much, the blonde Senshi thought. She shouldn't have to stick her neck out for a villain just because Chibi-Usa thinks he might have a crush on her.
Nevertheless, she'd agreed to it in the end. And so she continued to watch and wait, straining her senses from any sign of danger. For a while there was nothing but silence, with no sign of movement. Then something did catch her attention, although it was not anything she'd expected.
There was a tiny old man creeping toward the Tendo home, a large black sack slung over his shoulder. He glanced back and forth as he went, keeping a low profile, as though trying to avoid someone spotting him. His path took him to the main gate of the Tendo compound, which he simply opened and stepped through, continuing in toward the main building.
Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune exchanged quizzical glances. "Some kind of servant of theirs, I guess," Sailor Uranus offered. He was evidently part of their group, but his frail appearance and his absence at any of the battles so far meant he probably wasn't one of their fighters. Add to that the sack he was lugging around, and it was a good guess that this was someone the Dark Lords had pressed into their service for menial labor. Their use of such a feeble-looking old man for such a purpose made the Senshi's lip twist. As though we needed more reasons to dislike them, she thought. At any rate, the old man soon disappeared into the house, and for a while everything was silent again.
Then she heard the explosions.
She sucked in a breath, her eyes going wide. "Sailor Saturn!" she cried out, her worst fears now confirmed. As one, the three Sailor Senshi shot to their feet, ran over to the edge of the roof and jumped off, dropping down to the ground below. They then dashed across the street, and vaulted over the outer wall in a single bound, landing in the yard. Immediately they ran for the building, Sailor Uranus praying that they would make it in time.
They were halfway across the yard when the building wall in front of them exploded outward, and Ryouga burst into view. Sailor Saturn could not be seen anywhere. But to Sailor Uranus's horror, she saw that the Dark Lord was savagely beating the frail old servant they'd just seen enter. Ryouga's fangs were bared in an expression of fury as his fists slammed down again and again into the helpless, unresisting form.
There was no time to hesitate if they wanted to have even a chance of saving the old man's life. Sailor Uranus lunged toward them with all the speed she possessed. She didn't want to use her ranged attacks for fear of hitting the Dark Lord's victim, but that was no problem. The Space Sword appeared in her hand in a flash of orange light, and she swung it up at Ryouga in a diagonal slash. He was so caught up in his brutal assault that he only noticed her at the last moment, but he managed to leap back frantically. The very tip of her sword still caught him, slicing his shirt and carving a thin line of red from his hip to his shoulder.
She reversed her swing and tried again, driving her off-balance foe back with a flurry of intricate bladework. Despite the element of surprise, he was barely managing to keep ahead of her strikes... until the Dead Scream slammed into him from the side. He let out a pain-filled cry as he was blasted away end-over-end, various parts of his body impacting against the ground as he bounced to a sliding stop. Sailor Uranus was right behind him, her blade swinging down at his prone body—
—until her strike was blocked by the Silence Glaive, as Sailor Saturn lunged into view. Sailor Uranus's eyes widened. "Sailor Saturn! You're all right! We heard the explosions..."
"That wasn't Ryouga!" the younger Senshi said urgently. "It was the old man! He's the one who attacked both of us!"
"...what?" Sailor Uranus gave her an incredulous look. "Him? Are you serious? He doesn't look capable of—"
An outraged shriek from behind caused Sailor Uranus to whirl around, her eyes bulging at what she saw. Sailor Neptune had knelt down to attend to the injured victim, kneeling down next to him to check if he was still alive. As it turned out, he was. In fact, at the moment he had flipped the skirt of Sailor Neptune's uniform up and then zipped around to feel up her rear. "Wait, the whole thing's a leotard?" he wailed in utter dismay on closer inspection of the lower part of their uniform. "I wanted to get the panties of the legendary Sailor Senshi!"
Sailor Neptune's response was immediate and furious, swinging her fist around in a wild backhand aimed at the perverted little troll. He hopped back, bouncing up and down, left and right as he looked from Sailor Senshi to Sailor Senshi with wide, beaming eyes, as though torn between which one to go after next. Sailor Uranus was still trying to wrap her mind around what was going on. Who is this sick freak?
The old man's gaze settled at last on Sailor Pluto, who tensed and readied her staff. Sailor Uranus likewise prepared to go to her aid... only to pause as she noticed something. The ground was vibrating. Not a large amount, barely noticeable at the moment, but it was growing steadily, as though something immense was pounding its way closer with every reverberating stomp.
She was not the only one who had noticed. Ryouga had climbed back to his feet, Sailor Saturn still standing protectively in front of him. The Dark Lord turned to look at the old man with a disbelieving expression. "Oh, don't tell me..."
The withered pervert let out a nervous chuckle. "Heh heh. Well, guess he figured out where I was heading..."
Sailor Uranus whirled to look in the direction the impacts were coming from—very audibly now. As she watched, a section of the outer wall around the compound exploded inward, demolished as a gargantuan creature crashed through it and let out an infuriated bellow.
The thing's body was predominately ox-like, if oxen could stand on their hind legs and were the size of a house. But that was far from the only aspect to the chimeric body. Enormous, writhing octopus tentacles sprouted from the thing's back alongside crane-like wings, and it was armored on its forearms, shoulders and chest with what appeared to be tortoise shells. Sharp spikes jutted out from it at various places, looking for all the world like spear-sized porcupine quills, while behind it a tail swished with an eel-like motion.
The Sailor Senshi gaped a bit at the new arrival, having no clue what to make of it. The beast, for its part, after a cursory and disdainful glance at them, proceeded to roar and make another devastating charge toward the area where Sailor Neptune and the old pervert stood.
Doctor Metzger had been lost in his study of some reports from the aborted test run of Unit Zero when the blaring alarms interrupted his concentration. He looked up, his aged face twisting into an expression of mixed perplexity and worry. There was no drill scheduled for today.
He hurriedly put the documents back in the wall safe of his office before scurrying out into the hallway beyond, looking back and forth. And as he strained his ears, he realized that he could hear gunfire over the noise of the alarm—distant, but growing nearer at an unnerving rate. His eyes began to dart back and forth like a cornered animal. What was going on? Who were these attackers, and what were they after? In a situation like this, would it be safer to run? To hide? He opted for the latter course, fleeing back into his office, locking the door, and proceeding to cower under his desk.
He'd hoped that the battle would go in a different direction altogether, but the sound of gunfire grew ever-closer. Then it was joined by the sound of running feet in the hallway outside. Peeking out, Metzger saw through the window on the door that several of the guards were fleeing past, their resolve clearly broken. They did not make it far, though, since they were shot in the back as they tried to escape.
Then the door burst off its hinges, as a blood-splattered Captain Davidson kicked it in. He stormed into the room, flanked by four of his mercenaries. Doctor Metzger tried to curl into a tiny quivering ball, but as they began to search the room, one of the soldiers-for-hire found him almost immediately and dragged him kicking and screaming back out. Davidson walked up to him, a vicious gleam in his eyes. "Hey there, doctor," he said. "We wanted to have a word with you about your plans to shut us down."
"What... I... th- that's crazy!" stammered the terrified scientist. "We... we would never do something like that to you, Captain! Why don't we all just calm down and—"
Davidson's fist slammed into Metzger's jaw, sending the old man sprawling across his own desk, knocking papers everywhere as he slid from there to the floor. "Don't you dare try to bullshit me, Metzger," the mercenary growled disgustedly. "You think we couldn't see what was going on? You think we don't know what happens when you corporate types decide to clean up loose ends? Well that isn't going to happen to us! You hear me? That isn't going to happen to us!"
Metzger tried to crawl pitifully away, but was stopped by Davidson's foot on his back, driving him to the ground and pinning him there. "It... it wasn't my decision!" the doctor pleaded desperately. "I wanted to keep trying to perfect the serum! Tanizaki was the one who decided it was time to cut his losses, not me!"
"Oh, I know that," Davidson replied. "I know all you are is his pet scientist. I know it's Kazuo we have to deal with in the end. So what we need is some kind of leverage on him. And you, Metzger, are going to tell us everything you know that we could use for that."
"Th- that's insane!" blurted Metzger in disbelief. "You actually think you can blackmail someone like him?"
Davidson's response was to slam his foot down again, this time onto the back of Metzger's head, driving the scientist's face into the ground. "We can, and we will!" he roared, any pretense of civility vanishing. "He's going to have you keep up the production of the serum, or we'll find some way to make him pay! So tell me, Metzger, what's he up to? Where can we hit that'll hurt him the most?"
Metzger's breath was coming in frantic heaves. The intellect he normally prided himself in had abandoned him, drowned out by sheer terror as he struggled to come up with a believable lie. He knew that the drug-crazed mercenary could kill him at any moment. "P- please..." the scientist begged. "You know I can't tell you anything like that! If... if Tanizaki found out that I said anything—"
The mercenary captain interrupted his plea with a kick to the ribs that sent him rolling. Then Davidson motioned to two of his men, who each grabbed one of the doctor's arms and dragged him up onto the desk, pinning him there. "Well it's your choice, Metzger..." he said as he leaned in close, taking out a large scalpel that he must have raided from one of the operating rooms. "You can tell us what we want to know, and risk Kazuo maybe finding out that you did it... or else you can keep quiet. And I can get it out of you the fun way."
Frantic whimpers escaped the old doctor's lips, as Davidson grabbed Metzger's head and slammed it back onto the desk, holding it in place. The mercenary used his fingers to force Metzger's left eye open, while with the other hand he brought the scalpel slowly toward it. "Think I'll start... here." The old German scientist thrashed and struggled with all the strength his frail, trembling form could muster, but the hands holding him in place were far too strong. The blade drew closer and closer, filling his vision until it was only centimeters away from the eye.
Metzger cracked. "The Senshi!" he sobbed out. "The Sailor Senshi! Tanizaki is obsessed with them, with stealing their power! Especially with Sailor Moon! He's been working at it for years now, pouring more money into it than any project before!"
A toothy smile crossed Davidson's face. "There. That wasn't so hard, was it?" he said, pulling back the scalpel. "So... Kazuo wants the Senshi that bad, huh? That means if we get the prize before he does, he won't have any choice but to deal with us."
The doctor stared up at the unbalanced mercenary, his expression incredulous. "There's... there's no way that will work!" he protested. "Your team couldn't stand up to the Sailor Senshi, and even if you did manage to capture them—"
A heavy blow across the face silenced Metzger, making his vision wobble and filling his mouth with pain and the taste of blood. "There's nothing my team can't do," Davidson snarled. "Now tell me where I can find these Senshi."
Metzger hesitated, licking his lips. "I... don't know..." he said, almost truthfully. "Tanizaki never told me anything about—"
Another blow smashed across the scientist's face. "Don't lie to me, Metzger!" Davidson roared, bringing the scalpel back up to the man's face again. "I am not feeling very patient right now, so if you try to bullshit me one more time..."
"It's only a guess!" wailed Metzger, all traces of composure now gone as he blubbered out everything he knew in a frantic stream. "Tanizaki never actually told me anything about their identities, but... there was one time, a few months ago. It was when I was trying to fix the degeneration problem in our Daimons. I was stuck. Couldn't make any progress. Then... Tanizaki suggested I read any bio-science papers that a Professor Souichi Tomoe had published over the past decade."
"It was brilliant work. I could recognize the style, could tell right away that he'd had experience with the same kind of principles that were behind the Daimon Egg formula. But it wasn't enough. Any Daimons I made would still eventually disintegrate. So I asked Tanizaki to kidnap the Professor for me, so I could interrogate him personally."
Davidson's grip on the scientist tightened. "There a point to this story, Metzger?"
"Tanizaki refused!" Metzger burst out. "He'd never refused a request like that before. I asked him why, asked if the professor had political connections that would make it difficult. But Tanizaki just laughed, as if I'd said something funny. Then he told me that actually... it was the man's daughter that he didn't want to risk finding out about us yet."
"...that's it?" Davidson asked, frowning.
"Do you know of any other fifteen year-old girls that Tanizaki Kazuo would be afraid to anger?" asked Metzger desperately. "Either way, that's all I know! Tanizaki never let anything else slip about their identities, I swear!"
Davidson considered this for a long moment. Then he pulled Metzger off his desk, and shoved him toward a row of file cabinets in the far corner of the room. "All right," he snapped. "I want everything you have on this 'Tomoe' guy. I want to know who he is, I want to know where he lives, and I want every single file you have on him." Then the insane mercenary smiled a feral smile. "And get ready to make some more of your serum, because Kazuo's going to have to give us a lot of it if he wants his Sailor Senshi to be alive for much longer..."
When the chimeric behemoth had come through the wall, Sailor Uranus hadn't known what to make of it. The old pervert and the Dark Lord both seemed to recognize it, but neither seemed too happy about its presence. Add to that the confusion of Sailor Saturn's claim about Ryouga being against the old man, and the question of who was on whose side became even more muddied.
Then the thing charged, pounding across the yard with frightening speed for something of such immense size, and swung its arm in a wide swipe that ripped through the air across a substantial part of the yard. It would have hit both Sailor Neptune and the demented old man had they not both jumped at the last second—Sailor Neptune high into the air and the old pervert high onto Sailor Neptune, clinging to her chest as he groped her further. "Oh, kind Sailor Senshi, please save this poor old man from that terrible monster!" he pleaded insincerely as the monster prepared for another swing.
Sailor Uranus's eyes filled with anger, and her hand shot skyward, gathering the energy for a World Shaking to her palm. Ryouga was already past her; he had burst into motion the instant the creature had started its charge, as though he'd been expecting it. The monster made another attack aimed at the airborne Senshi and her unwanted passenger... but before it could connect there was a flash of energy, and then superimposed around the Dark Lord was a glowing, building-sized replica of himself, which smashed its fist into the side of the monster's head, knocking it stumbling off-course.
The stumble allowed Ryouga to drive the shoulder of his giant doppelganger into the beast as well, the two titans locking together in a fierce grapple as they struggled back and forth. This allowed Sailor Neptune the chance to pry the old man off and fling him away with a cry of revulsion. Instead of resisting, the old man bounced with the throw, lunging off toward Sailor Pluto instead. But before he could reach her, Sailor Saturn jumped in between them with a cry of "Silence Wall!" and raised an energy barrier that blocked off that whole section of the yard. Happousai slammed into it with no effect, other than a cry of frustration.
The giant-sized Dark Lord was driving the unknown creature backward, forcing it to give ground, the two of them crashing through several of the nearby trees as they fought. But the monster soon made its counterattack, using its tentacles to wind around his attacker and sweep his legs out from behind. Ryogua lost his balance, the projection dissipating as he fell. Immediately the tentacle coiled around his ankle, swinging the young man up into the air as high as the appendage could reach. When he was at the absolute apex, the monster reversed direction, slamming Ryouga straight back down into the ground with such devastating force that the very earth itself shook.
Without hesitation, the creature raised its arms, aiming its spines to stab down at the prone figure. But before it had the chance, the World Shaking that Sailor Uranus had been charging hit it square in the face, the blast of magic knocking it back a few steps as it clutched at its eyes with a pained roar. Sailor Uranus's lip twisted in a grimace, and she was pretty sure she was going to regret saving the Dark Lord like that. But it did seem that Sailor Saturn had at least been right about the old man being the attacker today.
And he had kept the monster from hitting Sailor Neptune.
To her surprise, Ryouga rolled to his feet a few moments later, shaking his head to clear the cobwebs from it but not looking particularly damaged otherwise. Her surprise at his durability was cut short, however, by a shout of warning from Sailor Saturn. The next thing she knew, a small weight had landed on her back, with small hands reaching around from behind as best they could in an attempt to grope her, while a small face nuzzled into her back.
The blonde Senshi spun back and forth, trying to throw the repulsive little goblin off, her arms twisting to try and reach behind herself. But he hung on with tenacious resolve, and she couldn't get a good grip on him from that angle. The other Senshi and Ryouga both ran to help her, but before they could cross the yard another figure darted out of the Tendo home. It was a girl—about Ryouga's age—who was carrying the large black bag they had seen the old man holding earlier.
The girl swung it as she ran, hurling it skyward so that the cloth began to come unravelled directly above Sailor Uranus and the old man. The Senshi sucked in a hiss of breath. She didn't know what kind of attack the bag would deliver, but the girl didn't seem to care about catching her in it as well...
...and then the bag finished opening, releasing a ridiculous number of female undergarments to flutter down from above, falling both on and around the sailor-suited defender of the planet, filling the air like a gentle, lacy snowfall. Huh? thought Sailor Uranus eloquently, as a pair of panties landed on her upturned head and a bra caught on her shoulder, this latest development throwing even her for a loop.
The girl, though, was still running, shooting past and grabbing the old pervert as she went by. His frantic dodging had paused for one fatal moment amidst the shower of lingerie, and the girl exploited the opening in a manner even more bizarre than the method she'd used to create it. She whipped out another pair of underwear—male boxer shorts, this time—and jammed the old man's face into them.
Whoever had worn them had evidently been working out quite heavily while doing so; even at that distance, Sailor Uranus caught a whiff of their potent aroma. The effect on the old man was far more profound. He immediately went rigid, his body spasming in horrific convulsions. The girl showed him no pity, tying up his tiny body as tightly as she could with the boxers, and then drop kicked him, sending him flying off into the horizon.
By then, the towering monster had recovered from the World Shaking to the face, just in time to see old man go whizzing away. The creature's head twisted to track the pervert's trajectory, and it let out a bellow of thwarted rage as the old man vanished from view.
Then, in retaliation, it swung one of its tentacles back at the girl who had done the kicking.
"Akane!" Ryouga let out a cry as the tentacle crashed into the youngest Tendo daughter from the side, blasting her off her feet and back through one of the house's walls. He ran after her, dashing through the hole she'd made. She'd been knocked through three successive walls, before finally reaching the kitchen, and embedding into the wreckage of what had once been the family oven. Ryouga knelt down to examine her. She groaned and tried to get back to her feet, but Ryouga put a hand on her shoulder. "Easy, easy."
"I can still fight..." she muttered, shaking her head. "Just give me a second."
Even as she spoke, Soun and Genma crept into the room, looking apprehensive as to the source of the fighting. Soun burst into tears at the sight of his daughter's state, to her obvious annoyance. Genma, for his part, spoke up apprehensively. "Is what Nabiki said true? Is... is the master back?"
"Him, Pantyhose Taro, and the Sailor Senshi, all at the same time," replied the lost boy tersely. "Though Akane bought us some time on the first one, until he gets back. I don't suppose either of you would be willing to lend a hand?"
The two fathers blanched, looked at one another, and then Genma spoke hurriedly. "Actually... despite how much we wish we could help... considering the danger... the most important thing is to get the girls far, far away from here, to a safe place. Not that we wouldn't fight if we could... but clearly, our duty—"
"Fine." Ryouga cut them off. He had no time to listen to Genma's self-justification. And getting the girls somewhere safe was better than nothing. "Whatever. Go ahead. I'm going back out there."
Akane protested, but Ryouga shook his head. "Let me handle the rest," he said. "Pantyhose Taro is too dangerous an opponent, even if you weren't hurt. Just go with them. Please." She still didn't look happy, but she relented, not struggling as her father picked her up and ran out of the room, followed by Genma. Ryouga, for his part, rose back to his feet and looked over his shoulder, back through the hole in the wall to where the enormous Jusenkyo-spawned beast loomed. Ryouga's fists tightened, anger surging through him, and he strode back outside.
Pantyhose Taro was eyeing the Sailor Senshi, as though debating whether to attack them as well, in retribution for blasting him in the eyes. They met his gaze, standing spread out through the yard, their weapons drawn and at the ready. Sailor Saturn looked over at Ryouga as he emerged from the house, and he could see confusion on her face. She clearly didn't know what this new opponent was, or how the creature related to Ryouga, or Happousai, or how she ought to respond to the tangle that the previously-simple situation had become.
When she spoke, though, it was to ask about Akane. "Is she all right?"
"She'll be fine," was Ryouga's dark reply. "Which is more than I can say for him."
Pantyhose Taro laughed, a deep huffing noise, showing what he thought of Ryouga's threat. But the lost boy was beyond caring. Fury boiled through him, and the only thing on his mind was beating down the hulking monstrosity who had hurt Akane.
Sailor Saturn continued. "What is he? An enemy of yours? Why was he attacking the old man? What are you going to do to him?"
"I'm just going to teach him a lesson, that's all," Ryouga answered. "About what happens to people who hurt my friends. Come on, Pantyhose Taro, how about you and I settle this man to man?"
Anger flashed in the behemoth's eyes at the sound of his hated name, and his enormous hands clenched into fists in response. He roared and lunged forward into a charge, which Ryouga met with a charge and battle cry of his own.
Sailor Saturn watched as, with an enraged kiai, the airborne Ryouga's fist slammed into the left temple of the creature he'd called "Pantyhose Taro." The chimera stumbled sideways, but then its hands shot up in an attempt to grab the young warrior. Ryouga kicked off the thing's head, backflipping away before it could, threading through the tentacles as they tried to latch onto him as well.
The monster growled, then yanked a half-dozen of its spines out of its body and hurled them after the Dark Lord like spears. Ryouga twisted in midair, snatching one of the projectiles and then spinning it to deflect the others. He then drove the spine he'd grabbed deep into the ground, swinging around it to reverse his course and then kicking off it to launch himself back at his opponent again, this time planting a flying kick right into the creature's stomach.
It let out a "whuff" of expelled air and teetered backward. Ryouga tried to follow up, but he was too eager, and left himself open for a hook punch that hit him from the side, sending him flying away to embed into one of the thick walls enclosing the yard.
The Senshi of Silence considered intervening herself... but in all honesty, she had no idea what was even going on anymore. The creature seemed to be an enemy of the Dark Lords... but also of the disgusting old man who had attacked them... and it didn't seem too concerned about anyone else getting caught in the crossfire either. Was it connected to that "Tanizaki" person that Ryouga had been trying to warn her about? But it didn't seem to have much in common with the grey creatures either...
In the end, she was hesitant to go on the offensive when she knew so little about the situation. Not to mention that Ryouga himself had been insistent on a one-on-one duel with it for what it had done to that poor minion.
The other Outer Senshi were watching as well, though with much less uncertainty on their parts and much more pragmatism. After all, if two of their potential adversaries wanted to fight each other then it was only prudent to stand back and let them do it. They were watching closely, ready to intervene if the situation demanded it, but otherwise they were simply studying the combatants.
Pantyhose Taro—and just what kind of a name was that, anyway?—lowered its shoulder and charged at the wall where Ryouga was embedded. Just before the monster hit, however, Ryouga reached up and grabbed the upper edge of the wall, tearing himself out of the crater in which he was embedded and twisting up into a tuck position. From there he launched himself straight upward with just his arm strength alone, just as the monster plowed through the wall beneath him.
As the behemoth surged past, Ryouga's hand snagged the tip of one of the creature's ox-like horns. He used that grip to arrest his upward momentum, then yanked hard on it to pull himself back downward at a blistering velocity and slam his other fist into the back of Pantyhose Taro's skull, driving it face-first into the ground. It responded by flapping its wings to launch itself off the ground with a gust of air, flipping over backward in an attempt to crush Ryouga beneath its bulk. But the Dark Lord jumped away in time, narrowly avoiding the earthshaking body slam.
Pantyhose Taro rolled to its feet, charging back into the Tendo yard after Ryouga. The two continued to strike at each other, exchanging punishing blows that made the very air reverberate from the force of their strikes. They were both insanely strong and insanely resilient, but Sailor Saturn's heart leapt to see that Ryouga seemed to be gaining the upper hand, his furious attacks driving his opponent backward.
The young Sailor Senshi frowned. There was something wrong about it. Looking into the hulking creature's eyes, she didn't see any worry or distress there. Rather, she saw a gleam of self-satisfied cunning, one that Ryouga, in his unthinking anger, had not noticed.
The monster was deliberately giving Ryouga the upper hand. She was sure of it. Its retreat was preparation for something else, some way to turn the tables. "Ryouga, look out!" she shouted. "He's—"
But before she could even finish the sentence, the creature enacted the plan it had been maneuvering Ryouga toward. As the Dark Lord jumped toward it yet again, the behemoth reached back with one of its enormous hands, dipped it deep into the koi pond directly behind it, and flung up a wide spray of water up to meet its opponent.
And right in front of Sailor Saturn's shocked eyes, the Dark Lord vanished from sight, leaving only a tangled pile of clothes tumbling through the air. Pantyhose Taro's hand shot out, engulfing the airborne clothes completely and clenching them in its fist. Huffing out a deep, reverberating laugh, the monster looked down cruelly at its hand and began to slowly squeeze.
It was with gloating pleasure that Pantyhose Taro felt the piglet squirm in his tightening grip. So, the lost idiot had thought he could win against him? He was going to enjoy this. It wasn't as satisfying as doing it to the fem-boy would have been, of course, but the lost pig had been enough of a thorn in his side during his misadventures over the years that it would be satisfying nonetheless.
The raw force of the blast lifted Pantyhose Taro clean off his feet. His enormous bulk went pinwheeling through the air like it was a rag doll, and he lost his grip on his piglet prisoner. Pantyhose Taro crashed through the outer wall again, this time continuing his uncontrolled flight until he finally plowed face-first into the road outside. His body carved a wide trench through the pavement before he finally ground to a stop. He managed to pull himself to his feet, his legs wobbly and threatening to buckle, the taste of blood in his mouth and an aching pain in his ribs. What the hell was that? he thought, unnerved in spite of himself.
Looking back along the path of destruction, he saw the youngest of the four girls in the sailor suits, standing at the origin of it, the one dressed in purple, with the wicked-looking glaive. "That was a warning shot," she stated, as she started to advance toward him. "This has gone far enough! I don't want to hurt you, so please, stop this right now."
Pantyhose Taro boggled, trying to wrap his mind around the idea that this slip of a girl had been the one to smash him away like that. And she'd called that a warning shot? Surely she had to be bluffing! He glowered down at her from his towering height, with all the intimidation he could muster, his gaze drilling into hers. The girl looked right back up at him, her expression calm, composed and utterly unflinching.
She didn't look like she was bluffing.
The gigantic chimera swallowed. Normally, being in his monster form was a source of comfort for him, considering the power it gave him and how it allowed him to shrug off hits that would have incapacitated most human martial artists. But faced with an opponent like this, it suddenly made him feel much less secure, and he actually found himself wishing for hot water. In his human form he might at least have a chance of dodging, but right now he just felt like an enormous, building-sized target.
And she was still looking at him with those eyes. There was no active malice in them, no desire to hurt him, even a sadness that it might become necessary. But he recognized those eyes all the same. In that moment, he knew beyond all doubt that—whatever else she was—this girl was fully capable of taking his life. Those were the eyes of someone who had killed before, and he knew that if he forced her she would not hesitate to end him.
A chill ran down his spine. How does a girl that young get eyes like that? he wondered.
Almost without realizing it, he had taken a step back. Then another, and then another. Then he flapped his wings, launching himself airborne as he flew away from the Tendo dojo.
He explained to himself, as he flew, why he was doing it. After all, he had no reason to get himself involved in whatever nonsense Saotome had attracted this time. He had gotten back at the fem-boy's girl for her interference, beaten down the lost pig, and now it was simply time for him to pick up the trail of his nemesis once again. That was why he was flying off so hurriedly—so that the trail would have less chance to get cold.
It certainly wasn't because he was terrified of that girl. Not at all.
Sailor Saturn watched as the strange Pantyhose Taro creature turned and fled. She wasn't altogether sure whether it was safe to just let it go like that, but she wasn't going to shoot it in the back based on what little she knew. Instead, she turned and ran over to where a certain crumpled pile of clothes now lay, already surrounded by the other Outer Senshi. "Ryouga?" she called out hesitantly. She had a suspicion about what had just happened, but until she saw for herself...
The pile of clothes stirred, and then a disoriented-looking black piglet crawled free of them, looking up at the four Sailor Senshi nervously. "Bwee?" the transformed Ryouga said.
Sailor Uranus, Sailor Neptune and Sailor Pluto exchanged glances, their eyebrows raised. They had been told, of course, about the Dark Lord's shapeshifting ability, but it was still a surprising thing to see. Sailor Saturn, for her part, simply knelt down. "It's all right," she assured him. "We're not going to hurt you."
Ryouga seemed mollified by her promise, though he still kept a wary eye on her teammates. Sailor Pluto spoke up next. "Whether that is true or not will depend on him," she said. Then she looked down at Ryouga with a piercing gaze. "Are you willing to turn away from Ranma? To withdraw any support from him and his plans?"
Ryogua froze in hesitation, then shook his head from side to side. "Bwee!" he exclaimed, gesticulating wildly with his hooves. "Bwee, bwee bwee bwee bwee! Bweeeee!"
Sailor Saturn's heart sank a little at his response. But she spoke up anyway. "It's... not quite as simple as that," she said. "Before the fight broke out, Ryouga told me that Ranma wasn't the one who caused what happened to Sailor Moon. He said that they'd been framed, that someone named 'Tanizaki Kazuo' had used that fight as a cover for his own strike against us. He also said that Ranma was investigating this Tanizaki himself, so it seems like even Ranma himself is against this new enemy right now."
The small piglet nodded vigorously. "Bwee bwee bwee!" he said, enthused. He pointed at each of the Sailor Senshi in turn with one front hoof, then pointed over to the Tendo home with his other. Then he brought the two hooves together, then began to pantomime a rapid series of punches with them, as though he were fighting something. "Bwee! Bwee!"
Sailor Uranus gave him an incredulous look. "So let me make sure I'm getting this right... You're saying that you won't turn your back on Ranma... but instead you want the Sailor Senshi to team up with you and Ranma to fight someone else. Based on nothing but your word that he was the one who really attacked Sailor Moon."
Ryouga considered that, shrugged helplessly, then nodded. "Bwee."
Sailor Saturn could tell that none of the Outer Senshi found this particularly convincing. After an uncomfortable pause, Sailor Neptune tried to offer up a suggestion. "Wouldn't this be easier to discuss if you turned back into your human form first?"
The piglet gave a despondent sigh, and Sailor Saturn interjected. "He told me earlier that this piglet transformation was actually a curse that he'd been afflicted with," she explained. "I don't think it's something he can control."
A thoughtful expression crossed Sailor Neptune's face. "I see. It seemed like getting splashed by water was what triggered the change," she mused. "What if it worked in both directions? Water to change him one way, and water to change him back?" As she spoke she raise her hands, water swirling to her palms to form an extremely low-powered Deep Submerge, which she then released at the ground next to Ryouga. It hit, releasing a wide splash of icy cold water... but with no change to Ryogua except to re-drench him, water dripping from his body as he directed a baleful look up at Sailor Neptune.
"It must be something else that undoes the transformation, then..." Sailor Saturn murmured. But what was it? It could be any number of things. A magical item, a specific ritual... in fact, it could be that water still was the reversal too, but with some added condition they had no way of knowing. Maybe you had to wait a certain length of time before water would work, or apply it in a certain way.
Ryouga scratched his head with his hoof, and then pointed over to the Tendo home. "Bwee! Bwee!" he exclaimed.
"The house..." Sailor Saturn said. "Is there something in the house that will let you change back?"
The piglet nodded. "Bwee!" he said, and ran through the porch doors and into the building. The Sailor Senshi were right behind him, curious to understand more about the nature of this magic, and they followed him closely on his path through the house.
That was when things started to get a little... odd.
Ryogua began in the family room, then proceeded upstairs. There were several doors on the upper floor, and—with the help of the thumb-possessing Senshi—he went through the door with the duck-shaped nameplate on it that read "Nabiki". He then trotted forward until he hit the far wall, then walked along that for a while. Then he veered off it, meandering through the center of the room in a vague S-shape. After he'd spent a few moments wandering back and forth he swerved back out the door. This time he went down to the far end of the hall, then immediately doubled back and took the stairs back down to the main floor again.
Through all of this he was clearly searching for something, looking every which way as though he were trying with all of his might to puzzle out some inscrutable mystery. Why is he having such a hard time finding what he's looking for? Sailor Saturn wondered. Wouldn't he keep the thing that can undo his transformation somewhere he could locate it easily? Or... maybe it's gone because someone moved it, or used it all up? That would mean that the thing he's looking for probably isn't a common item.
Whatever the reasons, Ryouga continued to have no luck in finding what he was looking for, his frustration growing with every passing minute. Eventually, Sailor Pluto had had enough. "Whatever this mysterious countering agent is, it's obviously not where he expected it to be," she said, annoyance in her voice. "I don't like waiting here for this long. As it stands, we're the open targets now for whatever counterattack his comrades want to launch. Not to mention if that old man returns."
The other three Sailor Senshi shuddered in unison at the memory. "But what do we do with him?" Sailor Uranus asked, gesturing to Ryouga.
Sailor Pluto looked down at the small piglet, evaluating him. "We take him into our custody," she said at last. "I'm not yet convinced by his story, and I certainly don't intend to let him run around loose to continue helping Ranma. But on the other hand... he did help us. And while I'm not willing to trust him completely yet, I do want to hear what else he has to say. If we study him ourselves, we may be able to figure out a way to undo his transformation and question him again—in Japanese, this time."
The piglet tensed at her words, looking ready to bolt. It was obvious he didn't like the idea of being taken prisoner. "Please!" Sailor Saturn urged him. "I promise we won't hurt you. And this could mean a chance to talk things out. To find a peaceful solution to our differences!"
She hesitated, remembering Chibi-Usa's words about her influence possibly being the thing that might save Ryouga from the side. of evil. When she spoke, it was in a quite, barely audible voice. "If... if you were really serious about... what you told me before. About... not wanting this 'Tanizaki' person to hurt me... then please, work together with us in this!"
Ryouga looked up at her as she pleaded with him, then over at Sailor Pluto, then back to her. Then he nodded. "Bwee."
Relief flooded through Sailor Saturn. "Thank you," she said, smiling. Then she turned to Sailor Pluto. "Will we be heading back to the hotel, then?"
"You and Sailor Uranus can take Ryouga there," answered Sailor Pluto. "But I think it would be best if Sailor Neptune and I made a small side trip. While I'm not yet ready to trust his story, it still might prove illuminating for us to get some information about this 'Tanizaki Kazuo' ourselves..."
Reaching across his desk, Professor Tomoe Souichi picked up the next paper in the stack that he was working on grading and stared down at it. He knew he had to finish them before tomorrow, but it was not easy for him to keep his mind on task. Not when it was clouded by worry for Hotaru.
He hated knowing that she might be out there somewhere, in deadly danger at that very moment. He wished he could be there himself, to keep her safe somehow, even though he knew how foolish that was objectively. He knew that she was strong, one of the strongest beings on the planet, but even so his inability to protect her himself ate away at him.
The white-haired scientist let out a sigh, glancing over at the photograph of Hotaru that he kept on his desk. It had been taken many years ago, before the... accident, and everything that had happened after that. She was smiling wholeheartedly in the picture, as she sat on the steps of their house, with no idea of the cares or responsibilities that were even then looming in her future, no idea of the destiny that she would soon have to shoulder.
She grew up so fast... he thought sadly. Even the simple fact that his little girl would be starting high school next year was hard enough for him to come to terms with.
And of course, starting high school would be the least of the growing up that had been required of Sailor Saturn over the past three years...
Worst of all was the fact that he had played a part in robbing her of her childhood. His memories of the time he'd spent possessed by the Daimon Germatoid were still unclear even now, but he'd remembered enough to piece together a very vague idea of what he'd done to her in his mad attempt to bring Pharaoh 90 to this world, and it haunted him every day. His experiments had almost killed her, grafting the malevolent alien entity known as Mistress 9 into her very soul.
A loud pounding on the front door of his house disrupted his thoughts. Puzzled at who it might be, he got up from his desk and walked over, opening the door to find, of all things, a large, blond-haired man with western-looking features standing there. "...hello?" the scientist said politely. "How can I help you?"
The foreigner gave him an appraising glance. "You Souichi Tomoe?" he asked, with an extremely thick accent.
Professor Tomoe frowned. "Yes, I am. What do you—" Any further words were cut off, as the man lunged forward, clamping one hand over the scientist's mouth while driving the other into his stomach with a vicious punch. The professor doubled over in pain, as he was shoved back into his house. Two other foreigners appeared, stepping into view from around either side of the door, following the first one through and slamming the door shut behind them.
The professor struggled weakly, fighting to draw in breath despite the wind being knocked out of him, but he could not escape his assailant's grip. At the same time, he heard a crash of breaking glass coming from the rear of the house, and moments later four more men entered the room. By now, all of them had drawn guns and were moving swiftly from room to room, calling out to each other when each one was cleared.
The first man, who seemed to be their leader from the way they were acting, kept his iron grip on the scientist. As his men started to return from their search, they each exchanged a few words in English. Eventually, after enough of them had reported back nothing, the leader drew his gun and pointed it directly between Professor Tomoe's eyes and removed the hand covering his captive's mouth. "Your daughter," he snarled. "Where is she?"
Professor Tomoe said nothing, only glared back at his attacker defiantly. The burly foreigner waited a few moments, then smashed the professor across the face with the butt of his gun. Blood and pain filled the professor's mouth, and his vision spun. "Where is she?" the man demanded again.
"I don't know what you want with her," Professor Tomoe rasped, still feeling the effects of the earlier blow to the stomach. "But I'll never tell you anything."
The man drew back his hand for another strike... only to be halted as one of his subordinates returned, this one with an excited expression on his face. After a quick exchange in English, the leader followed the speaker into another room, dragging Professor Tomoe along. They stopped at the room's telephone, and the professor felt his heart sink into his stomach as he saw the man hit the "Rewind" button on the answering machine. Then, once the tape had reached the beginning, he hit "Play."
"Father," they heard Hotaru's voice say from the machine. "Something... came up, and I won't be staying at the normal place anymore. Setsuna has arranged for us to stay at the Concieria Hotel instead. Everything's fine—we just needed a different location for what we were doing. If you want to contact me, Setsuna said you can use this number." She recited the phone number, and then ended the message with a heartfelt "I love you."
His mouth splitting in a wide, toothy grin, the leader looked down at Professor Tomoe, then turned to his men. "All right!" he called out. "Contact the rest of the platoon. We've got a new target." Then he clamped his hand down hard on the back of the scientist's neck. "And we've even got an extra bargaining chip to make sure his girl doesn't try anything funny..."
Beneda stared at the seemingly-human figure standing in front of her, disbelief and awe struggling for supremacy in her chest. "Bunbo..." she repeated, as though saying the word herself might help her come to grips with it. "You mean... Bunbo the Seer?"
The young man who called himself Urawa Ryo nodded. "Yes. That is who I was."
"But how...? Why...?" Beneda was at a complete loss for words. She had told herself to be ready for anything when she started this investigation, but she certainly hadn't expected this. Not a figure out of youma legend confronting her in human form. "What happened to you?"
"All seven of we Great Youma were awakened at one point or another during Beryl's war," Ryo explained. "And in fact, most of us ended up on... quite good terms with the Sailor Senshi, which was not something she had intended. But the whole story isn't something we have time for. The part that's important right now started about six months after Sailor Moon reset the world..."
With a muffled noise that was halfway between a yawn and a groan, Urawa Ryo pried his head off his pillow, looking up at the glowing red numbers of his alarm clock. 3:48, the device proclaimed, the colon blinking slowly, rhythmically in the darkness of his room. His bleary mind wondered, for a moment, why he had woken up at such an early hour.
Then, without warning, he felt strong hands latch onto his shoulders, dragging him roughly out of his bed. Adrenaline coursed through him, and he opened his mouth to scream for help, only to have a cloth gag jammed in instead, reducing it to a muffled "Mmmmnnnn!" He tried to struggle, but the hands holding him were far too strong.
He felt his wrists and ankles being tied together with some kind of cord. Then another cloth, this one giving off a pungent, sickly sweet aroma, was clamped over his mouth and nose.
The last thing he heard, as his consciousness faded into blackness, was a voice saying "I'll take him back myself. The rest of you, take care of the parents. Make it look like a bungled robbery, and we'll have the newspapers report that there were three bodies, not two..."
With a strangled cry, Urawa Ryo jerked awake, the tangled sheets around him damp with sweat. He looked wildly around his room, gasping for breath as the familiar surroundings registered in his mind. The panic-filled memory of the dream—no, the vision—was still crystal clear in his thoughts. He focused on the nearby alarm clock, silently glowing back at him.
Ryo scrambled out of bed, his movements frantic and graceless. He stumbled, nearly falling, as his feet hit the floor and he flung himself toward his dresser. He threw on some clothes haphazardly, barely paying attention to which ones, then threw a jacket over that and grabbed his wallet containing what spending money he had. His mind was racing. Who had attacked—no, who was going to attack him? And why?
Whatever the reason, he needed to run. He was in danger. His parents were in danger, as long as he was nearby. He briefly considered waking them and trying to explain what was going on, but he knew he wouldn't be able to make them understand. Not in time. Their only hope was if he could lead this menace away.
Were his attackers watching the house already? He didn't know. In fact, he didn't even know whether tonight was the night they would make their move. For all he knew, that vision might have been of tomorrow night, or the night after that, or a night a week from now.
Still, he couldn't take chances. He crept out the back door, crawling low through the night, keeping behind bushes and in shadows as much as he could manage. He expected at any moment to be grabbed again, for real this time, but he managed to make it across to the neighbor's yard, cutting through there and out to the street beyond. For a moment he stood there, panting, looking right and left down the empty night road. What now? he thought, as the initial panic began to fade.
There was only one thing he could think of. He had to contact the Sailor Senshi, had to warn them. Something big was going on, he was sure of it. He could think of only one reason why he might be attacked by something like this. And if this threat knew about and was targeting youma like him then then Senshi might be at risk as well.
He took off running down the street, and it was not long before he found what he was looking for. A pay phone. With trembling fingers he pulled out his wallet, took a ten yen coin out of the coin pocket, and pressed it into the coin slot. Then it was just a matter of dialing a familiar number.
The phone rang and rang. He knew she had to be asleep now, but he waited, praying for her to pick up. At last the rings stopped, replaced by the sleepy voice of Mizuno Ami. "Hello?" she mumbled. "Who is this?"
Ryo opened his mouth to reply—
—as he and Sailor Mercury ran through the city streets, following behind Sailor Jupiter and Sailor Venus. He heard the distant crack of a gunshot, and Sailor Jupiter's head jerked sideways. The supernatural durability from her Senshi transformation protected her from the heavy caliber round to an extent, but she was still sent staggering, off balance, blood running down one side of her face. He heard additional sniper fire coming from different directions, as heavily armored JSDF soldiers poured into the street from every direction—
The telephone receiver tumbled from Ryo's suddenly-limp fingers as he sagged back against the back of the booth. It took all his effort to keep his knees from buckling, as the visions kept coming, more intense than ever before. More intense than any visions he'd had to date. The specifics kept changing in a myriad of different ways and combinations, but the core elements remained constant. Forcing this new enemy's hand... provoking a direct confrontation between them and the Sailor Senshi right now... it would end in disaster.
This enemy was not like any the Sailor Senshi had faced before. Where the previous threats had been alien and unknown, this one was woven into the very fabric of the human world. It already knew their secret identities. It could attack the Senshi in their sleep. It could attack them through their friends. It could attack them through their families. It could attack them through catspaws that they would not be willing to use lethal force against.
And there was even worse than that. Somewhere in the barrage of images, Ryo caught a glimpse of one future, a future where against all odds they managed to back the enemy into a corner... prompting the enemy to release a monster that even Princess Serenity had no defense against. He saw only its silhouette, a huge, human-shaped figure with immense dragon wings sprouting from its back, standing against a backdrop of flame as Tokyo burned and millions died.
"Hello?" He could still hear Ami's voice, coming from the dangling handset. "Hello, is anybody there?"
Shaking, he sank down, his back sliding along the phone booth until he was sitting on the ground. No. He couldn't do that to her. He was certain, down to the depths of his soul, that the best chance for ultimate victory was to postpone the confrontation until later. Which meant that he couldn't go to them for protection right now.
Which meant that—alone—this new enemy was probably going to catch him.
"Hello...?" He could hear in her voice that Ami was about to give up on getting a reply, writing this off as some kind of mistake or prank. He wanted so desperately to answer, to do something, anything that would keep her on the line with him. But he swallowed that urge. Instead, he simply concentrated on fixing the memory of her voice into his mind.
There was silence for a few more moments. Then he heard her sigh, then a click, and then the sound of a dial tone.
Ryo closed his eyes and tilted his head back, letting it thud softly against the back of the booth behind him. As he sat there, he tried to think, tried to figure out a plan.
Because even if they did end up catching him, he was going to do what little he could before that happened.
Three days later, Ryo ran through the streets of pre-dawn Tokyo, hoping that he would make it to his destination in time. From what had almost happened to him, he'd made a guess at what this enemy might be doing, and had started investigating based on that. Those investigations had gotten a jump-start last night when he'd had another dream, this one about what his investigation would have discovered later that day.
Now he was racing in an attempt to avert the fate he'd seen.
He skidded to a stop, panting for breath, in front of a white, two-story house. His heart leapt. Maybe there was still time. He ran toward the main door and pounded on it. "Hello!" he shouted, as loud as he could. "Hello, can you hear me in there?"
No answer. After a few moments he tried again. "Please!" he yelled. "If you can hear me, open the door!"
Still his wild shouts brought no answer from the inside, though even some of the neighbors were starting to poke their heads to the windows of the surrounding houses to see what was going on with the lunatic screaming at the top of his lungs so early in the morning. Suspicious, Ryo put his ear to the door and listened closer.
Inside, he could hear the crackling of flames.
Abandoning his shouted pleas, Ryo instead backed up and threw himself headlong at the door, slamming his shoulder into it. The door shuddered a little, but did not budge. A second try, and then a third both yielded the same result. The people in the surrounding houses were definitely taking notice now, but he ignored them. Instead, he drew back for a fourth attempt, gritting his teeth as he readied himself. Please, he thought, calling on all the strength he could muster. Please, I need to get in there!
He charged forward once again... and this time, somehow, he touched a part of himself that was slumbering deep inside, a part of himself that was more than just human. His eyes flashed red for just a moment, and when he hit the door this time he tore it from its hinges, sending it flipping into the room beyond. He felt a blast of hot air, and could see the fire with his own eyes now, spreading through the room in front of him like a hungry demon.
There was no time to waste. But before he did anything else, Ryo pulled the hood of his jacket so that it covered his face. He knew that there was someone else in this house, someone he did not want recognizing him. Not yet.
He raced from room to room, looking for the house's inhabitants. The first ones he found were a man and a woman in a bedroom on the upstairs floor, unconscious. Even when he shook, them, their only response was a groggy murmur. Probably drugged, Ryo thought darkly. Just enough so they wouldn't wake up in time to stop the fire... but not enough that they wouldn't wake up once they started to burn. Better if they died in a realistic-looking position, after all.
He grabbed the woman, throwing her arm over his shoulder, and half-carried, half-dragged her back outside. When he'd gotten her far enough away he dropped her, then spun around and ran back in, doing the same for the man.
By the time he went in for the third time the fire had spread to a frightening extent. The entire structure was engulfed in flame, and a crowd had gathered to watch. Ryo stayed low as he charged back in, to avoid the smoke that was filling the air as best he could. He raised his arm in a vain attempt to shield himself from the heat as he ran back up the stairs. From the vision earlier that night, he knew there was still one person left in the house that he might be able to rescue.
He found her in a room further down the hall from her parents' bedroom. A young girl, maybe seven or eight, with curly brown hair. She was small enough that he was able to pick her up entirely, slinging her over his back in a fireman's carry. Like before, he ran headlong for the stairs, rounding the corner and heading down—
—only to find that the flames had spread too fast, weakening the stairs, causing them to collapse under his weight halfway down as he and the girl tumbled to their fiery deaths—
Ryo scrambled backward, heeding the vision's warning just in time. Instead he ran down the hallway, returning to the little girl's room. Setting her back on her bed, he grabbed a nearby chair, spun it around once to give it extra momentum, and then hurled it at a nearby window. His improvised projectile crashed through in a shower of broken glass, and Ryo ran up to the opening, screaming to the crowd outside. "Help! Someone, please help!"
His cried attracted several of the watching crowd over, whereupon he ran back to the bed and carried the young girl over to the window. "You have to catch her!" he shouted, until one of them stepped forward, standing ready. Ryo tossed her out, her small body falling down into the arms of the man below.
Someone else from the crowd shouted for him to jump clear as well. For a moment, Ryo was sorely tempted to try. But then he shook his head. "I can't," he called back. "There's... still someone up here."
With a heavy heart, he took one step back from the window, then another, until he was out of sight from anyone below. Then he spoke. "It would sound pretty ridiculous to most people," he said, quietly this time. "Setting fire to a home... Trying to kill an innocent family... And all of it to cover up the theft of a cat."
He looked back over his shoulder, directly into the eyes of the Chinese-looking man in long black robes who was now visible, standing behind him. In one hand, the man held an unconscious, extremely fat cat by the scruff of the neck. "Maybe," the man admitted. "But then, we both know that this is no more an ordinary cat than you are an ordinary human. I recognize you now; you're the precognitive one, aren't you?"
Ryo nodded. "Yes," he said, pulling back his hood. "Which is how I knew you were here, and how I knew you would have grabbed me the second I walked in if you'd recognized me then. It's also how I knew you people were only a few days away from taking my parents hostage to force me out of hiding."
"So you decided to avoid that by turning yourself over like this," the man said approvingly. "Not a bad way to do it... if heroics are your aim. And you spared me the need to manufacture a separate 'accident' to explain your disappearance. That was quite thoughtful of you."
"I know the kind of collateral damage that your 'accidents' can cause," replied Ryo levelly. "If you want to give me gratitude, then don't go after this family anymore. You've got what you wanted."
The man shrugged. "I hadn't intended to. As you say, they were never the real targets. The disappearance of our friend 'Rhett Butler' here won't be questioned now, and any residual affects from the drug I slipped them will be written off as smoke inhalation." He laughed. "And two disappearances for the price of one! My employer will be pleased. Now in the interests of making this easy on both of us, I suggest that you follow me closely. And don't even think about trying to escape."
Beneda listened in stunned silence as Ryo continued to explain what had happened to him. "...and like the rest of the youma, I was handed over to Metzger," he said, a cloud passing over his face as he spoke. "At first, he spent his time trying to replicate my ability. I was kept in the labs at Tanizaki's skyscraper headquarters back then, so Metzger could run his tests on me personally every day. But I knew it wouldn't do him any good. He was able to copy our base attributes as youma, but our unique magical powers don't depend on biology. They're a manifestation of our souls."
"Eventually he realized that and gave up on reproducing my visions, though he did not give up on using them. Since I was not being actively researched, he sent me here. Instead, every day his men bring me intelligence reports gathered from spies and news agencies worldwide. And then they ask me what I foresee they will bring me the next day. Whenever I miss a detail they consider important..." He gestured to his injured leg and all the other scars. "...well, they try to make me regret it."
Beneda shuddered. And he had been trapped like this for years. She understood now the haggard expression that he wore.
Then an almost manic light entered Ryo's eyes as he looked right at Beneda. "But it ends soon. After so long, it's almost over. Metzger thinks he's broken me, thinks the facts that I miss in the daily interrogations are just because my foresight is unreliable." The young man let out a hollow laugh. "He has no idea how strong it's truly become. He feeds me drugs designed to sensitize my mind and enhance my meditative state. The side effects are unpleasant—these days I can manage maybe an hour or two of sleep on a given night if I'm lucky—but I can see more of the future than I ever could before. The different branches, twists, probabilities... so much clearer now than they were back then..."
"I've been doing what I can to hamper Tanizaki from here," he continued feverishly. "When I can, I give Metzger information that will lead in directions that will cause them to miss other opportunities he'd otherwise have found. And more than anything else, I've tried to guide events here, to a point where Tanizaki has the best chance of being defeated."
"I was the one who told them when and where your fight with the Senshi would happen. I apologize for that, but I foresaw that it would tempt Tanizaki into exposing himself as he has. The Senshi are stronger now, far stronger than they were back then. And there is your help... if you're willing to give it."
Beneda scratched the back of her head. "Actually... I think the problem is more whether they're going to be willing to work with us. They... sort of think we're out to rule the world ourselves."
"I can help you with that," replied Ryo. "It's only fitting, since I helped Tanizaki put you in this position. But I can't do it from here... and if I escape alone, Metzger will inflict reprisals on the ones I leave behind."
"So what do you need us to do?" asked Konatsu. He had been silent through most of the discussion, allowing Beneda to talk things out with her fellow youma, but now this was leaning back into his area of expertise.
"Help us take back the Dark Kingdom," was Ryo's unhesitating reply, and there was no mistaking the fire burning in his eyes now. "Help us drive these murderous bastards out of here, and I will approach the Sailor Senshi myself on your behalf and convince them of everything."
Some time later, Hotaru walked down the sidewalk that led to the hotel at which they were temporarily staying, with Ryouga trotting along beside her, still in his cursed transformation. Haruka was walking a ways behind her, still keeping a close eye on the Dark Lord despite his currently-tiny state. She glanced down at him herself, a tangle of conflicting emotions running through her, so many that it was near-impossible to make sense of them all.
It still seemed unreal. But after everything that had happened today—after everything that he'd said to her when they had talked—it was getting harder and harder for her to keep denying it. Chibi-Usa's insight about Ryouga's feelings toward her had been right on target.
Hotaru didn't know how to respond. This had never, ever happened to her before. She had had crushes of her own—like Hayase Shun, the athlete to whom Usagi and Chibi-Usa had tried to help her deliver her fan letter, back before she'd awoken as Sailor Saturn. But she had never imagined that it would be the other way around, that something like this would happen to her. She didn't know what she should do. She didn't know what she wanted to do.
She had to keep reminding herself that, despite his honorable conduct and his personal concern for her, he still hadn't renounced his side. Once this common enemy was dealt with, they still might end up fighting each other. Dark Lord against Sailor Senshi. But what if it didn't have to be that way? What would she do then?
Memories played back through her mind unbidden. Memories of yesterday's fight, of the two of them dueling each other in their ferocious battle through the city, only to end up fighting alongside each other once it was over. Memories of them fighting in tandem again earlier that day, as they held off the old man together. Memories of the conversation they'd shared, and the earnest look on his face as he'd proclaimed his particular concern for her.
Could... could something like that really work? she wondered. She tried to picture what it would be like. To have someone who felt that way about her.
To have someone who would look at her in the same way she'd seen Mamoru look at Usagi so many times.
Hotaru felt something clench in her heart. An aching, hungry throb, as if a vise was being clamped around it. But she shook herself, trying to clear her head. This was no time to be worried about such personal concerns. There were far more important things at stake than her own confused feelings. She had to deal with the threats at hand, had to protect everyone as best she could. That was what mattered right now.
Before long, they had arrived at the hotel. Hotaru could tell that Haruka didn't like having Ryouga there, even as—technically—a prisoner. But he hadn't abused his knowledge of any of their actual homes, and it wasn't as though this was a long-term place for them to stay anyway.
The two young women walked through the hotel lobby, went over to the elevator, and rode up to the floor on which they were staying. As they exited the elevator and went down the hallway, they walked past a large, heavily-muscled, brown-haired foreigner—apparently a traveller staying at the hotel—who was standing at one of the nearby vending machines as though trying to make a decision. He looked up as they went past, focusing on Hotaru for a moment, before turning back to the vending machine once more.
Setsuna had arranged for two rooms, one for her and Hotaru to sleep in, and the adjacent one for Haruka and Michiru. For now, they both went into Hotaru's room. "I'll call Usagi's house," Hotaru suggested. "Ami will be there, and if she comes over she might be able to find out more about the curse magic."
Haruka nodded, not looking too happy about depending on the Inner Senshi. It was clearly the best option, though. Nothing else they had even came close to the Mercury Computer's formidable analysis capabilities. Hotaru went over to the phone and dialed, and after a few rings, she heard the voice of Tsukino Ikuko, Usagi's mother. "Hello?"
"Hello Mrs. Tsukino, this is Hotaru," the young girl said politely. "Excuse me, but is Ami there? There's something that I really need to talk to her about."
Chibi-Usa's head perked up at the sound of Ikuko's voice coming from the floor below. "Ami?" called out the woman who would one day become her grandmother. "Ami, Hotaru is on the phone for you."
The Inner Senshi exchanged surprised glances. For Hotaru to ask for Ami specifically was odd; usually it would be Chibi-Usa or Usagi. It suggested that something particular was going on. Ami got up and hurried downstairs to the phone, with the rest of the girls trailing along behind in curiosity. Usagi brought up the rear, blithely ignoring Rei's attempts to shoo her back to her prescribed bed rest.
Much of the color had returned to Usagi's face by now, and her movements bore only the slightest hint of the weakness that had incapacitated her the day before. The rest of the Inner Senshi had been unwilling to leave her undefended while she was still recovering, especially once they learned that her identity was known. But with her rapid recovery, the team as a whole was almost ready to return to action.
Ami took the phone from Ikuko, who headed back toward the kitchen to work more on lunch, and the other girls crowded around. "Hotaru?" Ami asked. "Is everything all right?"
There was a long, drawn-out pause, as Ami listened to whatever it was Hotaru was saying. The blue-haired girl's face went through several interesting expressions, starting with concern, then shifting to surprise, before settling into a look of uncertain perplexity. Chibi-Usa watched with baited breath, certain that some new development was on the verge of being revealed. When Ami finally spoke, she did not disappoint. "You mean... he's there? Right now? He came with you willingly?"
Chibi-Usa's eyes lit up. "I knew it!" she mouthed, certain of who the "he" in question must be. The other Senshi leaned in closer, except for Rei, who merely raised her eyebrows a little with the look of someone who was withholding judgement.
Ami spent another stretch of time just listening, and then broke her silence next by saying "And you think he's telling the truth?" There was another pause, and then she nodded. "Of course. Being careful certainly wouldn't hurt." Another pause. "All right, I'll head over there soon. It might take me a little while to get there, but I'll do what I can." And with that she hung up the phone.
Immediately the other girls' questions burst out, multiple different variations of "What happened?" and "What's going on?" Ami tried to answer them as best she could, keeping her voice low at the same time since Mrs. Tsukino was just a few rooms over.
"Hotaru and Haruka have Ryouga at their hotel room," she explained. "He agreed to go with them to try and work things out... but he's in his piglet form right now, so they can't actually talk with him anymore. It seems to be some kind of curse that he can't control himself. They want me to go over there and scan him, to see if I can figure out a way to turn him back."
"Why not have them bring him here instead?" Chibi-Usa piped up, excited. She wanted to meet this Ryouga for herself, to confirm with her own eyes whether he was right for Hotaru or not.
"Absolutely not," was Rei's firm response. "I'm not letting any of them anywhere near Usagi while she's still weakened. Not after what happened last time."
"Doing it over there is certainly the safer approach," agree Ami. "But... there is one other thing. Hotaru told me that before he was transformed, Ryouga claimed that neither he nor Ranma were behind what happened to Sailor Moon. He claimed that it was a setup, designed to frame them so a different enemy could attack her without our becoming aware of them."
That prompted an expression of flat-out incredulity from Rei. "He actually expects us to believe that?"
"I do!" was Usagi's earnest response. "I think he's telling the truth. When Ranma talked to me, just before it happened, it really felt like he was being honest! If what happened after that was someone else trying to make him look bad, it'd make so much more sense! I really believe him!"
"You want to believe in everyone!" Rei exploded back, exasperation and concern twisting around each other in her voice. "Even when it might get you killed!"
Usagi and Rei locked gazes, the feelings in each of them colliding against the feelings of the other. It was Ami who interjected. "Either way, the next step is for me to go and help Hotaru. Once we can talk to Ryouga again, we can hear more abut what he has to say for himself."
Hotaru let out a sigh of relief as she walked over to one of the beds in the hotel room, sitting down on it and looking at Ryouga. She was sure that when Ami arrived they would be able to find a way to restore him, and then continue their conversation where they had left off. There was so much more she wanted to ask him.
The piglet looked back up at her from his position on the floor. Haruka, for her part, was standing at the far end of the room by the window, looking out at the city. No doubt she was thinking about Michiru, perhaps worried for her partner having been split up like this against unknown enemies.
Hotaru was in the middle of mulling over what might soon happen when the phone rang. Surprised, she walked back over to it and picked up the receiver. Had Ami forgotten something she needed to ask? "Hello?"
The voice on the other end was not Ami's. Rather, it was a man's voice. "Hotaru Tomoe, right?" he said, his voice thickly accented.
The young girl frowned. "...who is this?"
"Not important," came the reply. "The important thing is, I have someone here who wants to talk to you." There was the sound of a muffled struggle, then a savage blow, followed by a cry of pain. Hotaru's heart seemed to stop in her chest. She recognized that voice.
"Listen, Hotaru, whatever they tell you, don't do it!" she heard her father shout. "Don't worry about me, just—" But he was cut off by the sound of further blows. Hotaru's hand clenched on the receiver until her knuckles turned white.
And then the first voice was back. "So this is how it's going to be, girlie," he said. "I've got a man who is going to be paying you a visit just as soon as I give him the signal. You and your blonde friend are going to go with him. Quietly, without making a fuss or wasting my time. Otherwise, I will kill your father. And I will do it in a way that will give anyone who even hears about it nightmares." There was a click, and then line went dead.
Her hand trembling, Hotaru laid the phone's receiver back on the cradle. "Hotaru?" asked Haruka, sounding concerned. "Hotaru, who was that? Is something wrong?"
"They..." Hotaru swallowed, looking over at the older girl, distraught. "They have my father!"
"What? Who?" asked Haruka, her own eyes widening. But before Hotaru could answer, before they could even try to make a counter-plan, she heard a click coming from the door, and someone outside picked its lock and it swung open. Both girls whirled around, to see the man who had been loitering at the vending machine enter the room, leering at them.
"So the Captain told you little ladies what the score was, right?" he said. "You're going to be taking a trip with me, or some very bad things are going to happen to dear old dad..."
Haruka's fists clenched as she looked between Hotaru and the unknown man. She didn't know exactly what was going on here, or who he was with, but she understood the basics of the hostage situation they were in. Hotaru's expression was stricken, horrified, and she looked at the older girl pleadingly. "Haruka..."
It cut Haruka to the core, but she knew what her response had to be. What her duty demanded of her. The Sailor Senshi—and Sailor Saturn in particular—were crucial to the defense and safety of the entire planet, and the billions of souls dwelling on it. Professor Tomoe... wasn't.
She couldn't allow Hotaru to put herself at risk over this.
Haruka turned back to look at the thug who had broken into their room. He was big, tough-looking, and carried himself like he had significant combat experience. Even so, if she could just get into her Sailor Senshi form he wouldn't be much of a threat. Her hand shot into her pocket, grabbing for her transformation rod. The man saw her move, and let out a vile-sounding word in English. His own hands shot behind him with snake-like speed, yanking a handgun into view and leveling it at her even as she pulled out her transformation device.
"Uranus Crystal—" she began. But in that frozen split-second as his finger tightened on the trigger, she knew that it was too late. She had miscalculated. He was going to shoot her dead before the magic could take effect.
Then a tiny black blur shot through the air, slamming into the man's gun from the side just as it fired in a deafening roar. The small impact wasn't enough to make him miss, but it was enough to make him miss her heart. Her body jerked as the bullet tore through her chest and shattered the window behind her. She fell backward, landing in a crumpled heap on the floor, blood oozing from the wound as she lost consciousness.
"Haruka!" Even as the blonde girl fell, Hotaru was leaping to her side. Haruka had fallen out of sight behind the bed closest to the window, but Hotaru scrambled over that and knelt down beside her. It looked bad. Already there was a red stain spreading across the front of her shirt, and her breathing was almost non-existent.
Thinking quickly, Hotaru pushed her hand up underneath Haruka's jacket and blood-sodden shirt, touching the wound directly. As a result, when she called on her healing magic the clothes hid most of the attendant glow. After all, even if she stopped the bleeding and saved her life, Haruka would still be in danger from this kidnapper.
But if the kidnapper didn't realize that Haruka would survive...
Then Hotaru heard heavy footfalls coming around the bed from behind, and knew that she didn't have any more time. She hoped that what little she'd already managed to do had been enough to stabilize her teammate, or at least would keep her alive long enough for other help to reach her.
That was the last thought that passed through her mind before Hotaru felt the butt of the man's handgun crash into the back of her head. Then everything went black.
Ryouga watched, grinding his teeth, as the foreigner slung Hotaru's limp form over his shoulder. He wanted nothing more than to fling himself at the man again, to continue his attack from before, the attack that had ended when the man had finally dislodged Ryouga's fangs from his gun hand and flung the piglet into the nearest wall.
But he knew that even if he could beat the man down and rescue Hotaru right now, it would still mean the death of her father. That was why she hadn't transformed herself, even given the opportunity, even though in that state this opponent would pose no threat to her at all. She was trying to find a way to save her parent.
Ryouga was determined to do whatever he could to help her.
Already there were voices coming from the hallway, a commotion caused by the gunshot, one that would only increase. The man glanced over his shoulder, and spat a few English words that Ryouga didn't recognize. It was obvious that a scene like this had not been the man's intention. Moving hurriedly, the kidnapper moved over to the broken window, then took a small tube out of his pocket and injected himself with the contents.
Immediately his aura skyrocketed, flooding with barely-controlled killing intent. His muscles tensed and bulged, and he leaped out of the window to the next building over. Ryouga followed, determined not to let either the man or the girl he was carrying out of his sight for an instant. It wasn't difficult; whatever the man had pumped into himself, it was evidently a distracting sort of thing to have coursing through your system.
And tiny piglets can be very inconspicuous when they want to be.
The kidnapper ran across the rooftop of one nearby building, then dropped down into the alley on the other side, with Ryouga in hot pursuit. The piglet paused at the lip of the building, looking down into the alley below. There was a car waiting there, along with a driver and another man, all looking similar to the first. Ryouga heard them arguing in English, though he couldn't make out what it was about.
Eventually, they bound Hotaru's unconscious body hand and foot, then stuffed her into the trunk of the car. They then entered the car and started the engine, which was somewhat more involved than usual since it seemed that they had hot-wired the vehicle rather than having a key.
That was when Ryouga made his move, leaping down from above in a flicker of speed onto a nearby dumpster, then ricocheting from there to a position on the car's rear bumper. He clamped down with both his teeth and his hooves, hanging on as the car began to move.
He had no idea where they were going, of course. He only knew that whatever these men had planned for Hotaru and her father, he needed to find a way to rescue them.