Disclaimer: I don't own Ranma 1/2 or Sailor Moon in any way, shape or form. All associated characters, trademarks, etc. are the property of Rumiko Takahashi and Naoko Takeuchi. I'm just telling some stories about them.
Chapter Nine: Worth Fighting For
Hotaru awoke in darkness.
Fear gripped her for a moment, and she tried to move, only to feel sharp cords bite into her wrists and ankles. She struggled, instinct telling her to fight her way free, but her bonds were too tight. It wasn't until a few seconds had passed that the memories of what had happened to her in the hotel began to filter back into her consciousness.
Once her recollections had settled, though, she was able to calm herself. There was still the uneasy knot in her stomach at being bound and unable to see, but she didn't allow it to rule her thoughts. With that poise came a better understanding of her surroundings; she could tell from the sounds and sensations of movement that she was in the trunk of a car. Her kidnapper must have stuffed her in there after knocking her out, and now they were heading to some unknown location.
It was a dangerous situation, but Hotaru knew she was not defenseless. They might have tied her up, but she was confident her Senshi form could break these bonds easily. And unlike her teammates, she didn't require a special item to transform. It hadn't been necessary for her transformation during the battle at Mugen Academy, nor had she developed such a requirement during any of the subsequent incidents. All she would need was a second or two of concentration, and her attackers would find themselves dealing with Sailor Saturn.
She couldn't do that yet, though. Not while they still had her father. She needed to figure out a way to rescue him as well, and that meant playing along with their demands until she could turn the tables. Otherwise they would torture him to death, and there was no way she could let that happen.
The back of her head still throbbed painfully where the kidnapper had hit her. She wondered if Haruka had survived, wondered what Ami would find when she got there. Many different scenarios flashed through her thoughts. And the less hopeful ones seemed more plausible than usual as she lay there alone, tied up in the dark.
The police car was Ami's first indication that something was wrong.
It was parked just outside the hotel, near the entrance. There was no indication of why it was there, but even so the young woman felt uneasy. She increased her speed from the already-brisk walk she had used to get there from the bus stop, nearly running as she hurried through the lobby and over to the elevators.
When she emerged on the floor on which the Outer Senshi were staying, she saw that a small crowd had gathered near an open door to one of the rooms. As she drew nearer, she confirmed to her dismay that it was indeed the room in which Hotaru had been staying. Ami pushed her way through the onlookers, until she could see for herself what was going on inside.
There were two police officers there, examining the room. The window on the far wall was broken, and there was stain that looked like blood on the carpet. No one else was present. Ami turned to one of the surrounding crowd, a woman in her mid-thirties. "What happened here?"
"I don't know..." replied the mystified onlooker. "I heard someone say that there was a gunshot, but when someone came to check what had happened the window was broken, and the only person there was a girl with blood all over her!"
Fear clenched at Ami's heart, but she tried to keep it from showing. "What happened to her? Is she all right?"
"An ambulance took her away a little while ago," the woman explained. "I think she was still alive, but I don't know how badly she was hurt."
"Well I heard one of the paramedics talking," added a man standing nearby. "He said that the girl had a bullet hole right through her shirt right where all that blood would have come from... but that there was something strange about the wound. Like it had already started to heal before they got there. There was something strange going on here, no question."
"Did anyone see what she looked like?" Ami asked.
Another person in the crowd shrugged. "Blonde, short hair, a little older than you, I'd guess."
"That poor child..." sighed an older woman, her black hair tinted with gray. "Getting mixed up in something like this..."
Ami's thoughts, meanwhile, were racing. What had happened here? She could guess part of it; Haruka had been shot, bleeding over herself, but the partially-recovered wound almost certainly meant that Hotaru had started to heal her. But who had done the shooting? And what had happened afterward? Was Hotaru all right?
The Dark Lord that had been with them was an obvious suspect... but Ami found herself skeptical. The use of guns didn't fit what they'd seen of Ryouga's style at all, nor did any of this fit with his actions toward them over the past couple of days. And of course, there was that "other enemy" that Ryouga had claimed was targeting them...
In the end, there were just too many unknowns. I have to find where they took Haruka, Ami thought. She's the only one who can tell me what really happened here.
Although... if they had taken Haruka to the hospital for treatment then perhaps a stop back at Usagi's was in order. There was something back there, something that might prove useful for what Ami needed to do next...
Trying to look as innocent and inconspicuous as a two hundred and fifty pound panda could while walking down the city streets, Saotome Genma made his way up to the broken outer wall of the Tendo home. He didn't hear any combat coming from inside, and given the time it had taken to get Soun's daughters to Doctor Tofu's clinic he expected the fight to have already ended one way or the other, but he wasn't about to let down his guard until he knew how it had turned out.
He walked carefully into the yard, looking back and forth while keeping one paw on the handle of a sign that read "I'm just an ordinary panda!" so that it was ready to whip out at a moment's notice. Just dealing with their Master alone was terrifying enough, but with the Sailor Senshi in the mix it became even more dangerous. Genma had seen the state Ryouga had been left in after losing to one of them, and he had no desire to experience that himself.
And if there was one thing that the old training trip had engraved into his bones, it was that when their Master interacted with women, he and Soun tended to get caught in the inevitable vengeance. Bad enough when it had been a mob of ordinary women coming after them with brooms and garden equipment... but Sailor Senshi? Coming after them with weapons like that glaive the youngest one had been wielding? The panda shuddered.
Still, despite how he strained his senses he could neither see nor sense anyone in the immediate vicinity. Had they all left? It seemed so. He glanced back over his shoulder, then motioned that it was safe. Soun—who had hung back, not having a disguise as good as his friend's—hurried up from behind, the two of them taking in the latest damage to Soun's house. It was depressing, but nothing they hadn't weathered before.
At length, Soun spoke. "What do you suppose happened to the Hibiki boy?"
That was what Genma had been wondering as well. Their Master might have fled or been carried away by a whim, and Pantyhose Taro would have followed anywhere he went, and the Sailor Senshi might have left once there were no more enemies to fight... but where was Ryouga?
Exchanging worried glances, the two of them began to spread out and look for the young man in question. Soun would occasionally call out "Ryouga!" while Genma would occasionally brandish a sign reading the same thing. The search did not last long, ending when Soun found the pile of Ryouga's clothes, still soaked with water from the koi pond, and the mystery of what had happened to the cursed fighter became significantly clearer.
Genma suppressed a wince. They still didn't know exactly how the fight had gone after they'd fled (after they'd bravely evacuated the girls, his thoughts corrected for him). Still, whoever had ended up the victor, he seriously doubted that it had been a tiny black piglet.
Soun's expression was even more uncomfortable than Genma's was. "Do you suppose he's all right, Saotome?" he asked, worry tingeing his voice.
The panda shrugged. A long, uncomfortable silence fell, until Soun spoke again. "Do you... do you suppose it might have been better if we'd stayed and helped?"
Genma looked over at his old friend. Soun had always been the more emotional of the two, which made him more vulnerable to regrets and guilt after unavoidable things happened. That was part of why he'd always needed Genma to watch out for him. The panda quickly pulled out a sign bearing the words "Don't worry, Tendo, I'm sure he's all right," and followed that with a sign in the other paw, reading "He's small and fast as a piglet; I'm sure he escaped and just got lost again, like he always does."
Soun didn't reply, just continued to stare down at the empty clothes. Somehow, he looked older than Genma ever remembered seeing him. Worn down. Eventually he spoke again. "Saotome..." he began, hesitantly. "Do you..."
A new sign popped up. "...do I what?"
"Do you... ever have nightmares, Saotome?" his friend asked at last. "About... the things Ranma was trying to tell us a few years ago?"
Genma froze. He knew immediately what Soun was talking about, although he'd never breathed a word about it to another soul. The terrible nightmares of blood and chaos and death, of Akane being brutally killed by monsters while he and Soun fled.
Just as they had fled today.
They stood there, frozen, as Genma struggled to think of something he could write on his signs that would calm his friend, something that could make it all seem better, or at least unimportant. Nothing was coming to mind.
Standing atop a skyscraper, Sailor Pluto and Sailor Neptune looked across the cityscape of Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward at the far taller skyscraper that was the global headquarters of Tanizaki Heavy Industries. It towered over all the surrounding buildings, an enormous edifice of glass and steel. The two Sailor Senshi regarded it in silence, until finally Sailor Pluto turned to Sailor Neptune. "Are you ready?"
The blue-haired Senshi nodded, and drew out the Deep Aqua Mirror. "I'll start by taking a look into that penthouse office at the top," she said. Personally, she wasn't sure what to make of the warning that Ryouga had given Sailor Saturn... but she wasn't about to pass up a possible lead on the source of those grey creatures. And if the Dark Lord had been telling the truth about these people being behind the attack on Sailor Moon, it would indeed make them the far more dangerous of the two enemy groups.
She took a deep breath and focused her will into the Talisman. It reached out with its mystical sight as its mistress directed, ready to discern what was taking place within that building. The image began to swirl, shifting from a normal reflection into something else...
...and then, without warning, the image in the mirror went black. Lurid, blood-red symbols in some crawling, indecipherable script began to swarm across the mirror's surface, more and more with each passing second, until they choked the entire view in a dizzying torrent of runes. The mere sight of them provoked an instinctive revulsion in Sailor Neptune.
"Some type of ward?" murmurred Sailor Pluto, a troubled frown on her own face.
Sailor Neptune nodded. "It seems that there is something suspicious going on in there. Ryouga may have been telling the truth."
"Magical defenses alone aren't proof of guilt," cautioned the Senshi of Time. "Some ordinary humans do have knowledge of magic—though not widespread—and it would make sense for a large corporation to want to protect itself against eavesdropping by them. It doesn't necessarily mean that there is a darker force in play."
"An ordinary human magician who is able to block the Deep Aqua Mirror?" asked Sailor Neptune, her tone skeptical. "Whoever cast that spell, I think their sorcery is backed by something very powerful. And when I touched it, the magic felt... vile."
Sailor Pluto looked away from the mirror, over at Tanizaki's skyscraper again. "I agree that this is extremely troubling. And that it does lend weight to what Ryouga claimed. But we still need to learn more about what is truly going on here. And if the Deep Aqua Mirror cannot spy directly on these people, we will have to learn what we can through more indirect, mundane methods. Come, we have much work to do."
Tanizaki Kazuo, with Zhang standing at his side, watched without emotion as Ekim knelt in front of the circular altar, chanting feverishly. The deep, pentagram-shaped etching on the altar was now filled with blood, the same blood that covered the stone knife lying nearby.
The sorcerer had worked through the night on Tanizaki's demand, completing the repairs to Unit Zero's magical bindings hours ago, leaving only Doctor Metzger's work restoring the physical aspects incomplete. Now Ekim was working on the other task his employer had assigned him.
Ekim's chant increased in volume and fervor as time went by. Tanizaki recognized the language as ancient Assyrian, and while that wasn't a language the businessman was completely familiar with, he was able to piece together the general thrust of what Ekim was saying. The sorcerer was calling on his patron, promising it a harvest of death, destruction and torment if the Nameless One would favor him with a taste of its power.
As Tanizaki watched, Ekim took the strands of hair that they had obtained from Ranma, and placed them at the center of the altar's pentagram. He then waved his hand, causing the hair to ignite in dark yellow flame and vanish, leaving only a pungent scent of sulfur behind. At that, the blood in the pentegram began to glow crimson. The intensity of Ekim's chanting increased yet again, and Tanizaki could tell that they had finally started to reach the main part of the ceremony.
But suddenly, Ekim jerked as though someone had stuck him with a pin, his chant faltering a little. He looked around himself, eyes wide, and then glanced back at Kazuo. "Someone has just attempted to scry past my wards, and spy on this building!" he hissed. "And the magic used reeks of the Sailor Senshi!"
With that he turned back to his sorcery, working to prevent his spell from faltering. Tanizaki, for his part, turned to Zhang and spoke in an undertone, his expression hardening. "It seems that our young scapegoats have been busy. And convincing."
"Convincing enough that the Sailor Senshi are investigating you," said Zhang, his own voice tight. "Exactly what we most wanted to avoid. It may have been a mistake to try and recruit Ranma ourselves."
"Perhaps," was Kazuo's response. "Still, it's only investigation at the moment, not a direct attack, so I doubt they've been fully convinced. And thanks to the sample we were able to obtain by inviting Ranma here, we can more than turn this in our favor once our sorcerer friend finishes his work. Our current situation is still preferable to losing you in a three-against-one fight against opponents of their caliber."
It wasn't something so frivolous as personal sentiment that prompted Kazuo to hold that view... but at the same time it was something beyond even Zhang's immense use as a tool. The Chinese assassin was one of the few people that Kazuo genuinely respected, one of the few he felt he could converse with as a near-equal. That was something he was prepared to go to significant lengths to avoid losing.
"At this point, all our deception needs to accomplish is to buy us enough time for the flaws our test uncovered in Unit Zero to be rectified," Kazuo continued. "After that, we will have no more reason to worry about Sailor Moon finding us. Indeed, it would become a convenience if she were to try."
"Well don't expect any miracles from Metzger's work fixing those flaws," said Zhang. "We're pushing him and his people hard to finish their part, but his brush with Davidson shook him, and they lost a few other key scientists in the breakout."
Kazuo's expression darkened. "Indeed. Their escape could hardly have come at a worse time. I will exact retribution for that when the opportunity arises—until they wish they'd stayed put and let Metzger euthanize them quietly."
"I can go hunting, if you want," Zhang offered. "It'd be a waste to send normal soldiers after a group like that, and using the Synths again risks attracting attention from the Sailor Senshi, but if you want their heads I should be able to handle it discreetly."
"No, not worth the time," was Kazuo's reply. "The escaped test subjects can be dealt with later; they're not an immediate threat. I want you here, for when Ranma and his group make a move on this place."
"You're convinced that Ranma is coming here?" asked Zhang.
"Yes. In fact, I'm surprised he and his companions haven't tried something already." Kazuo stroked his chin in thought. "It was obvious that he intended to strike against us. And after all, this is the only significant target that he knows about..."
"So you're saying that all the Seven Great Youma are here?" Beneda asked. It was unbelievable. Just the thought that she was speaking to one of her species' legendary heroes still felt surreal enough. The thought that the other six might be around as well...
"Most of them were captured," replied Bunbo the Seer—or rather, Urawa Ryo, as he now answered to. "But not all. Tanizaki's sorcerer Ekim found a method for identifying us, even in our human forms, but its range was limited. They managed to sweep most of Japan with it eventually, but by the time they started looking Rikokeida had already left the country. And they never even tried to to take Jiji. He was too close to the Sailor Senshi for the risk to be worth it in Tanizaki's eyes."
"Close?" Beneda raised her eyebrows a little. "How close?"
Ryo grinned, his bloodshot eyes still managing a small twinkle. "Very close. 'Jiji the Destroyer' is now the grandfather of Sailor Mars."
"Grandfather?" Beneda's jaw dropped in incredulity. Queen Serenity showing mercy to the Seven and sending them forward along with her own subjects had been shocking enough... but to think that she would even send one of her own Sailor Senshi to be born into a youma's family?
"The others were captured, though," Ryo continued. "Joe—or 'Gesen the Hand' as you would know him—is somewhere around the camp; he tends to keep to himself and doesn't interact with the others if he can help it. But Binah and Boxy are both key members of this group. In fact, they're tending to some of the Daimons over there." He gestured off to one of the far corners of the structure.
Beneda looked over to where two figures stood amidst a cluster of bunks, where the worst-off of the Daimons seemed to be gathered. Both were human as well, or at least they seemed to be. One was a woman wearing a pair of glasses, whose long black hair ran down her back in a simple ponytail. The other was a man with brown hair and a beard and mustache. Both of them wore the same bulky metal collars that Beneda had seen on all the prisoners here.
The woman looked up first as Beneda walked over. "Hello," she said, her voice soft.
"You're... Binah?" Beneda asked, trying to reconcile this mousy-looking human with the tales she'd heard of the beautiful and deadly youma warrior whose weapons were anything she could paint.
The woman smiled. "Please, call me Yumemi," she said. "You are right about who I... was. Doctor Metzger awakened many of our old memories in the process of unlocking our youma forms and powers. But I think my human name best describes the person I am now. I'm sorry if that disappoints you."
"No, not at all!" Beneda was certainly no stranger to such dramatic changes in outlook. She doubted if her own old self from years ago would even recognize the person she'd grown into, even if it hadn't involved changing her own name. She turned to the man. "And... what should I call you?"
"For me, 'Boxy' is fine," answered the man, smiling as well. "Taking up my old name again has helped me better reconnect with my fellow youma—which gives me more opportunities to share the love of God with them."
Beneda blinked. "...what?"
"Boxy became a Catholic priest after being reborn as a human," Ryo explained from behind her. "And he still takes it very seriously. Tanizaki kidnapped him away from his parish, but he's done his best to continue his mission among the different species here. Along with helping out in this clinic, he holds services twice a week for any who are interested in joining him, as well as private counseling and confession."
This was, perhaps, the single most mind-boggling revelation yet in a day filled with them. One of her people's greatest heroes was not only alive... but was an ordained minister for a human religion. Resisting the urge to pinch herself, Beneda hesitantly spoke up. "It didn't... cause you to reconsider anything? Finding out what you really were?"
Boxy laughed. "Why would it?" he asked. "In fact, when I found out, I became more convinced than ever that it was an act of Divine providence which led me to the priesthood. For far too long, we youma have been trapped in the grip of hatred and evil. I am certain that God has placed me where I am to help guide our race out of that darkness, and into the light of his love. Youma, human... that isn't important at all. It is love that matters, from first to last."
"...I think I need to sit down." Suiting action to words, Beneda walked over to an unoccupied bunk and plopped down on it, rubbing her forehead. She'd told herself going into this that she had to be ready for anything. Clearly, she hadn't even been close.
"I understand that this is a lot for you to take in," Ryo said. "But we have limited time, and we still have to discuss what we're going to do."
Konatsu spoke up. "What kind of defenses do they have here? If we're to attack this place, we need to know what we're up against."
Ryo nodded. "The camp is enclosed in an electric fence, and you've seen the guard towers around the perimeter, as well as the checkpoints they have in the tunnels. All of them have heavy caliber turret guns. There's also usually at least a full company of soldiers stationed here at any given time. But the real problems are these collars." The young man tapped the metal running around his neck with one finger.
The ninja walked closer to inspect it, then glanced at the similar collars around the other prisoners' necks. "I assume this will do unpleasant things when activated."
"Only if you like having a head instead of a blown-up stump," remarked Karkala, her tone dark. "If you try to leave the boundaries of the camp... or if you try to tamper with the collar... or if they send the signal from the control room... that's it for you."
"So to avoid a bloodbath, the first priority will be securing that control room, the second will be dealing with those turrets, and the third will be the soldiers." Konatsu frowned in thought. "It's certainly possible, but the more people we have on our side the better. The faster we can take down the enemy, the less chance they'll have to harm anyone. We'll need to go back to contact Ranma and the rest, to see how many fighters we can find to help."
Beneda chewed her lower lip. "And we need to come up with a plan. And you need to get back soon to remove the needles from the people you knocked out, so that we aren't discovered." She thought for a moment longer, then took off her the helmet from her guard disguise and turned to Ryo. "Can you hide me here for a day or two?"
The young man nodded. "That shouldn't be too much of a problem."
Next Beneda turned to Konatsu, who was regarding her with concern. "Go back and let Ranma know about what's going on," she told him. "Get as many fighters as you can put together. I'll stay here and work out a detailed plan of attack with them. We can compare notes when you return; it should be easier for you to sneak in again if you don't have to smuggle me in as well next time."
The genius ninja didn't look happy about leaving her behind, but he eventually nodded. "Very well, I will return as soon as I can," he assured her. "Until then... stay safe."
The angle of his grip on the car's bumper was awkward, but Ryouga hung on with both his hooves and his teeth as the vehicle bounced along the rough dirt road. He had lost track of how long they had been driving—hours, at least—but he could tell that they had left the city proper behind. Whoever these men were, they were taking Hotaru somewhere remote.
Eventually the car came to a stop, and the piglet heard the doors open. Ryouga quickly released his grip, dropping to the ground and then darting underneath the car, out of sight. He saw the shoes of the two kidnappers walk around to the trunk, and then heard them open it. "What do you want with us?" he heard Hotaru ask them. "What have you done with my fath—"
One of the men moved, and Ryouga heard the sound of a loud slap cut off Hotaru's words. "We're asking the questions here," the man said coldly. Ryouga, for his part, barely managed to choke back the surge of murderous intent prompted by the violence directed at a tied up young girl.
The men pulled her out of the trunk, undid the bindings around her ankles, and then shoved her in a direction leading away from the car. Ryouga crept after them, knowing that with his sense of direction he couldn't risk letting them out of his sight even for an instant.
Wilderness was all around them, something very familiar to Ryouga. It seemed... a little odd to him, though. He'd assumed all along that these kidnappers were working for that bigshot "Tanizaki" guy Ranma had told them about. But if that was true, then wouldn't they have better places than this to take captives? Bringing Hotaru out away from civilization to do whatever they intended to do didn't feel like something backed by some ultra-rich zaibatsu. It felt like they were working on their own, with little resources, or even knowledge of the area.
Regardless of the reason, though, it posed additional problems for Ryouga. In the city he might have had a chance at finding hot water nearby, but he knew from bitter experience how unlikely that was out in the woods.
Could he really rescue both Hotaru and her father like this?
Hotaru walked between tree after tree as they made their way through the forest, one of the kidnappers leading, the other walking behind her. Both men had their guns drawn, and when she glanced back, she saw that the one behind her was keeping his weapon trained right between her shoulder blades. Even if she tried something, she had no doubt that he could shoot her before she could fully transform.
As they walked, they passed more armed men, patrolling the area between the old road and wherever they were headed. They too watched her warily, their weapons shifting to cover her. She noticed as she walked that their equipment seemed to be surprisingly random, like it had been scavenged together in a hurry from whatever they could get their hands on. They were all carrying guns, most of them large assault rifles.
Eventually, after a silent walk that seemed to last forever, they arrived at a clearing. Hotaru sucked in a quick breath. There were more men waiting there, four of them stood along the sides of the clearing, in positions where they could cover the entire area with their guns. At the opposite end of the clearing were two more of the soldiers, one brown-haired and wiry, the other an imposing blond giant. And there, between the two of them, knelt her father.
His face was bruised and bloody, and he looked drained from the ordeal he had obviously gone through, but he pulled his head up as the soldiers led his daughter into the clearing. A look of despair crossed his face. "Hotaru!"
The young girl flinched, both at the injuries her father had taken, and at the emotions she could hear in his voice. "All right, you have me," she said. "Please, just let him go."
The blond man snorted. "Not while I still have so many uses for him, girlie," he answered. "Now I have some questions I want you to answer. If I even suspect that you're lying to me? If I hear any hesitation, like you might be trying to think up something clever? Then your dad here gets hurt." As he spoke, he drew a pistol and leveled it against her father's head. "And don't even think about using your 'magic' to try and rescue him, 'cause I'll splatter his brain across the forest before I let you get away."
Hotaru's tied-up hands clenched into fists behind her, but there was nothing she could do. She watched in silence as the man continued to speak. "Now we already know that you're one of those 'Sailor Senshi' girls," he told her. "So first off, tell us. Which one are you?"
The girl blinked. They didn't know? How did they know as much as they did, but not that? She almost considered lying, but she didn't even know what their purpose was in asking this, didn't know what the "right" answer was. It just wasn't worth the risk to her father. "Sailor Saturn," she answered immediately.
Her interrogator's lip twisted, and he spat off to one side. "Figures we didn't get the one that Tanizaki's really interested in," he muttered, while Hotaru's eyes widened at the mention of the name that Ryouga had warned her about.
"All right, next question," the blond man continued. "Who is 'Sailor Moon', and where can we find her?"
Hotaru froze. That was the one question, more than any other question she could imagine, that she couldn't answer. She couldn't expose Usagi and Chibi-Usa to an attack like this. And yet... if she didn't...
The blond giant waited little more than a second's worth of silence before nodding once to the man standing on the other side of her father. Obediently, that man reached down, grabbed the little finger of the professor's hand closest to him, and broke it with a wrench and a snap that was audible even at Hotaru's distance.
Her father let out an agonized scream that was echoed by Hotaru's own. She lunged forward on instinct, only to have the kidnapper in front of her grab her by the hair as she went by and slam her face first to the ground, planting his knee on her back. Hotaru managed to twist herself so she could see her parent, who looked back at her, his shouders shaking. "Don't... don't tell them anything, Hotaru..." he rasped. "You don't need to worry about me, just aaaAAGH!" Another snap and another scream cut off his words, as the brown-haired soldier grabbed the next finger and broke it as well.
Hotaru was trembling where she lay, her heart hammering painfully in her chest as her feet scrambled for purchase on the ground behind her. But the kidnapper's weight from above was holding her down. In desperation, she called her magic to her, a purple glow appearing in the air as she focused on her transformation.
But it had barely even started when the man above her grabbed her by the hair again, yanking her head up off the ground before slamming it back down again. White filled her vision for a moment, and she let out an involuntary cry, her concentration broken.
"None of that!" the man questioning her barked. "You're just making this harder on everyone, little girl. Give us the name!"
Hotaru clamped her mouth shut, tears forming in her eyes. She could barely breathe, unable to betray Usagi but frantic to find some way to save her father. Even as she tried to think, another snap and another agonized scream came from across the clearing, pushing her deeper into despair.
Please, she begged, desperate beyond all reason. Please, I need a way out of this! Please!
Ryouga ground his teeth in rage as he crept from tree to tree, staying out of sight. He wanted nothing more than to leap out into the clearing and rip those cowardly soldiers limb from limb for what they were doing to Hotaru and her father... but he knew he couldn't pull it off in his current form.
If he wanted to have any hope of rescuing them, he had only one chance. He couldn't defeat the enemy all on his own, not in his piglet body... so his only hope was to give Hotaru an opening. That meant both distracting the soldiers away from her, and getting that gun away from her father's head.
Ryouga continued to move, sneaking carefully, carefully around the clearing. He could not afford to get lost now; if he did, he would never forgive himself. He kept his eyes locked with burning intensity on the two men torturing Hotaru's father. Each second felt as though it lasted forever as the sadistic interrogation continued.
"Give us the name!" the blond giant shouted again, the anger in his voice rising. "I can do this all day, girlie! Beg all you want, scream all you want. No one's coming for you! There isn't anyone else around for miles!"
Eventually, the tiny piglet managed to navigate the circumference without being seen, creeping up directly behind the hostage and his tormentors. There was one thing he could do in this situation, one move he could use. More than anything else, it was for situations like this that he had swallowed his pride and asked Ranma to teach the technique to him, and he had never been more glad that he had done so. It was still a huge risk, and in his piglet form he had only ever been able to keep it up a few seconds... but it was the only chance they had.
Mustering all his strength, calling on all the rage boiling in his blood, Ryouga drew in a deep breath.
Private Mitchell smiled hungrily as he pressed down even harder with his knee on the young girl he held pinned to the ground, relishing the feeling of power it gave him. That feeling reverberated with the animalistic urges from the remaining traces of serum still running through his body from the hit he'd taken while abducting her in the first place, creating an even headier thrill.
His finger dug into her hair, his palm grinding her head into the earth. Every time the girl's father screamed, the mercenary could feel her tremble, as though she'd been struck herself. He wondered if they'd get the chance to torture her directly before this was over, and licked his lips at the thought.
Mitchell looked up, over to where Davidson was holding the elder Tomoe at gunpoint, and saw that Abrams, the one doing the actual torturing, was reaching for another finger. Mitchell chuckled, while the girl he was holding down tensed in horror.
Without any warning, the figure of an enormous, glowing, building-sized piglet standing on its hind two legs exploded into view from directly behind the scientist and the two soldiers. Even in the split-second that it was growing, one hoof was swinging up underneath Davidson's gun arm, knocking it skyward and away from Professor Tomoe's head. The thing immediately swung its leg back around, and though Davidson tried to leap away the blow caught him square in the chest. He was sent flying off into the trees at incredible speed, accompanied by the sound of snapping ribs.
Mitchell's jaw dropped in incredulity at the ridiculous sight, but acting on reflex he whipped up his pistol to target the towering monstrosity attacking them. The mercenaries along the sides of the clearing also whirled, swinging their assault rifles around to aim at the sudden threat. The bizarre behemoth took a step, sliding around Professor Tomoe so it was between him and them. The soldier who had been doing the torturing tried to get some distance while scrambling for his holstered pistol, but the piglet lashed out in a kick using one of its hind legs. It hit the man with devastating force, sending him hurtling away... this time directly at Mitchell.
Even with the trace remnants of serum running through his veins, Mitchell barely managed to roll to one side in time as the human projectile tore through the air where he had just been kneeling. The other mercenary standing behind him wasn't so lucky; Mitchell heard the sound of a bone-jarring impact, followed by the sound of the two tumbling over each other as they rolled away. Mitchell, for his part, began shooting the instant he came out of his roll, along with the soldiers in the trees, all of them targeting the inexplicable monster that was ripping them apart.
The deafening roar of gunfire filled the air, as countless bullets shot toward their gargantuan target. But it didn't seem to bother the creature. In fact, the closer Mitchell looked at it, the less it seemed to be a "creature" at all. It was some kind of... energy projection, erupting from a much smaller piglet, who was visible now that it had stepped in front of Professor Tomoe. The mercenary adjusted his aim, targeting the source instead, but it was still no good. The raging flow of energy through the construct sent the bullets flying off in other directions, none of them anywhere close to their mark.
But as impressive as the construct was, it didn't look like the piglet could sustain it for long. Already the immense projection was shrinking, weakening. In just a few seconds, he was sure it would be vulnerable, and they could shoot it to pieces.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, Mitchell saw a glow of purple light emanating from somewhere behind him. It was only then—too late—that he remembered that despite her outward appearance, the girl he was no longer holding down was not just a helpless schoolgirl.
Ryouga clenched his teeth, pouring all his willpower into maintaining the ki construct that was shielding Hotaru's father and himself. In his human form he would usually be able to sustain it for a minute at least, but despite having specifically trained in his piglet form for this, he still wasn't able to keep it up for anywhere near as long. Normally he used it for a quick strike, not this kind of sustained barrier.
But this wasn't a normal situation. He'd needed a big, ostentatious display, needed to get their attention focused on him so Hotaru could get clear and transform. Which was exactly what she had just done, scrambling back behind the nearest tree, out of the soldiers' line of sight. A moment later, a glow of purple light emanated from behind it... and Ryouga knew that the tables had just turned.
Sailor Saturn exploded out from behind the tree, rocketing across the clearing. Ryouga only caught a glimpse of her expression, so fast was her movement, but even that one brief glimpse of the terrible fury in her eyes was enough to chill him to the core. The soldier who had been holding her down whirled, trying to bring his pistol around to target her, but she was on him far too quickly. With a flash of light, the Silence Glaive appeared in her hands as she swung it, and the man went down in a spray of blood and a strangled scream as the Senshi shot past him without slowing.
The other soldiers tried to target her, a hail of bullets criss-crossing through the air where she had just been, but she was moving too fast for them. She skidded to a stop in front of Ryouga and her father, allowing the soldiers to focus their aim... but the bullets only impacted harmlessly against the near-invisible barrier of an immense, towering Silence Wall that stretched from one end of the clearing to the other and beyond, protecting them completely and allowing Ryouga to drop his ki projection with a shudder of relief.
The soldiers responded by pulling out more of those injectors and jabbing them into their arms, clearly realizing that they needed their drug to even approach Sailor Saturn's capabilities. Ryouga felt their battle auras spike with bloodlust. But Sailor Saturn simply spun the Silence Glaive in her hands, holding it perpendicular to the ground as her power gathered in a glowing sphere at its tip.
"Spread out!" one of the men snarled, his eyes wide and bloodshot like the rest of them. "Be ready to dodge her attack!" Matching action to words they all moved in different directions, some of them firing ineffectually as they did so.
"...dodge?" asked the young Senshi, her voice deadly quiet. The crackling, pulsating sphere of energy continued to grow and grow as she spoke. "No. You don't understand the situation you've put yourselves in. Because it's just as your leader said. There isn't anyone else around for miles."
And with that, Sailor Saturn unleashed her attack.
The energy sphere erupted, filing Ryouga's whole field of vision with pale, blinding light. The earth shook, convulsing beneath him, making him fight for balance. He pressed himself to the ground, clamping his hooves over his head, trying to stay low as the horrific energies spent themselves.
When everything had at last subsided—and the afterimages had faded from Ryouga's eyes—what he saw was unrecognizable. What had once been a dense section of forest was now simply gone, leaving behind a smoking crater the size of a small stadium, whose outermost edge began just shy of the tip of Sailor Saturn's toe.
There was no trace left of the soldiers.
"...bweeeee..." Ryouga whispered, his ears going flat as he regarded the devastation. He was realizing for the first time just how much Sailor Saturn had been holding back in their initial clash, due to it taking place in a populated area.
But then, shaking himself, he pulled his gaze away from the crater and up to her. She was looking out across the destruction she had wrought as well, her hands still clenched tight on the Silence Glaive in front of her. Blood from the soldier she had cut down was splattered across both her face and the white front of her sailor seifuku. Slowly, Ryouga walked up beside her, putting a hoof on her foot. "Bwee?" he asked, concernedly.
Sailor Saturn blinked as though shaken out of a trance, looked down at Ryouga, then over at her injured father. Her eyes widened and she rushed over, kneeling down beside him, with the piglet following close behind. "Father!" she exclaimed. "Here, let me see that."
She took his mangled hand in her own, and soon a familiar purple light began to build. Her father sucked in a quick breath, and Ryouga could hear several sounds of bones re-adjusting themselves, but in barely over a minute the glow faded and the older man's hands were whole again.
A shudder of relief ran through Sailor Saturn's slender frame, as the last traces of her healing magic faded. Emotions washed over her, amplified by the rush of adrenaline, as raw fear for her father was replaced by joy.
With her father safe and healed, Sailor Saturn turned to where Ryouga was sitting, watching them. Once again, he had risked his life to save hers. And not just her life, but her father's as well.
If he hadn't been there...
She bowed her head, studying her hands. "Thank you," she told him in a soft voice. The words seemed so utterly insufficient, but she had to say something. "Thank you so much."
The cursed Dark Lord looked happily up at her, offering an encouraging bwee as he did. Professor Tomoe also regarded the small creature. "I must thank you as well," he said. Then he turned to Hotaru. "Is this one of your friends from the Sailor Senshi? An advisor animal, like those two cats you mentioned?"
"Not... exactly." Sailor Saturn hesitated, suddenly unsure of how—or how much—to explain to her father. How would he react to the idea that an inter-dimensional warlord had fallen in love with her?
Even more... how would he react to the idea that it might not be entirely one-sided?
"He's... someone I met during my Sailor Senshi duties," she explained. "The piglet isn't his true form, but we don't know how to get him back to his real one." More detailed explanations could wait until she herself was more certain of the facts. Still, after seeing him save not just her and her father, but also Haruka as well, she was more convinced than ever that somehow, a peaceful resolution had to be possible.
But for right now, the most pressing concern was to get back in contact with her friends. Sailor Saturn rose to her feet, looking left and right. "We must return to the city," she announced. "The other Sailor Senshi need to know what happened here."
"They had at least one car that they used to bring me here," her father suggested. "That would probably be the fastest way."
Sailor Saturn turned to look at the enormous crater that she had blasted in the direction they had come from. "I... don't think the car is useable anymore," she admitted, hanging her head a little. She'd let her emotions get the better of her when she'd unleashed that blast, and transportation home had been the farthest thing from her mind.
"Ah. Yes." Her father coughed. "Well, it shouldn't be too much of a setback. There are worse things than a good walk. I expect the greatest difficulty will be in finding our way, actually. They stuffed me into the trunk for the entire ride and there were many turns along the way; I don't even know which direction Tokyo is from here."
"It was the same with me," Sailor Saturn agreed, looking around her at the remaining trees around the edge of her crater. At the moment, she was as lost as her father. But fortunately, there was one person here who hadn't been locked up in the trunk like they had, making him the obvious choice to get them going in the right direction.
She turned to look down at the piglet again. "Could you lead us back to the city, Ryouga?"
For some strange reason, Ryouga's eyes took on a haunted look at her request. "Bwee! Bwee!" he said, shaking his head from side to side and waving his hooves in the air.
Sailor Saturn and her father exchanged quizzical looks, unsure what to make of the response. Then she looked back down at him. "Even if you don't remember the way exactly, it would still be better than either of us just trying to guess. Please, Ryouga."
The tiny Dark Lord flinched under her continued, imploring gaze, shifting his weight back and forth uneasily and then using his hoof to poke at the ground. Finally, with a helpless shrug, he gave in and nodded. Though there was an air to his assent that somehow carried the feeling of: all right, but this is on your own head...
Well, Haruka told herself philosophically. It doesn't feel nearly as bad as losing my Star Seed did...
Of course, that was true of most things, not just this particular pain. Having the corporeal manifestation of her soul ripped from her body—and even worse, the horrible, desolate feeling of emptiness that had followed—had been one of the most torturous periods of her existence. But making comparisons like that, however true, did little to actually diminish the pain she was in as she lay there on the hospital bed, waiting for surgery.
The nurse had told her that she would be getting some anesthetic shortly, now that they had analyzed the MRI scans and realized the full extent of her internal injuries. The doctors had been quite perplexed by the uneven damage to her body that the incomplete healing had left behind. Haruka had claimed to not remember anything at all about what had happened; she obviously couldn't tell them the truth, and it had been all she could think of at the time.
She had woken up recently, and to her annoyance there had been people with her every moment since then. She'd had no chance to contact Michiru on her wristwatch communicator and warn her about what had happened. Even now a nurse was watching her obsequiously, trying to ensure that she was prepared for the coming operation.
The nurse's earnest attention was diverted, however, when another nurse entered into the room. "Excuse me," the second nurse said. "But Doctor Nishimura asked to see you in his office. He said it was urgent."
The original nurse frowned, puzzled, but nodded and hurried out of the room. After the door closed, the nurse turned and spoke to Haruka. "Doctor Nishimura's office is on the other side of the building," she said as she turned off the Luna Disguise Pen, revealing herself to be, in fact, Mizuno Ami. "That should buy us some time. What happened, Haruka? Was Ryouga the one who did this to you?"
Haruka shook her head. "No. In fact... I'm pretty sure he saved my life. Someone else attacked us. I don't know who, but they might have been working for that 'Tanizaki' guy. They were trying to kidnap Hotaru, and I have to assume that they got her." Then she looked Ami right in the eyes. "And they didn't just know where the room was. They also took Professor Tomoe ahead of time, for leverage against Hotaru."
Ami's eyes widened, and Haruka could well understand why. That was one of the main reasons they kept their identities secret, to prevent their loved ones from becoming targets. But now it was all falling apart around them, from every direction. For all they knew, any of their families could be next. Even worse, Hotaru was likely in their hands right now.
"Listen, I have to get out of here," Haruka continued. "There's no time for surgery or healing normally, not with everything against us."
"Mamoru could heal you with his powers, if you went to him," Ami agreed. "But are you sure you want to disappear from the hospital like that? It might raise questions about you later."
"I'll cross that bridge when I come to it," said Haruka. "Right now, being able to fight is more important. But... I can't get away alone, not in the condition I'm in."
Ami considered this, and then handed Haruka the Luna Disguise Pen. "Use this," she said. "Go out disguised as the nurse I came in as. I'll follow later as myself. As long as it's not one of their patients leaving I should be able to slip out without attracting much attention."
Haruka accepted the pen, then swung her legs off the hospital bed with a grimace of pain. She stood unsteadily, putting out a hand to stabilize herself. "All right," she forced out. "Let's get going."
Michiru flipped quickly through the old newspaper—only the latest lead to splutter out into a dead end. The quiet of the library felt unusually stifling around her, probably because it felt at odds with the danger she knew was stalking them. Not to mention her growing frustration with the search. For such a vast, rich and powerful corporation as Tanizaki Heavy Industries, there was astonishingly little information about its owner.
The basics about him were obtainable enough; Tanizaki Kazuo was the latest heir to a zaibatsu that had been in his family since the Meji era, handed down from father to son for over a century. Despite being unimaginably wealthy, the entire family was an extremely reclusive one. They had remained steadfastly out of the public eye over the years, which made finding reliable information on them difficult.
Her reading was interrupted, however, by an insistent tone from her wristwatch, drawing annoyed looks from the other library patrons. Setsuna, sitting across the table from her, also looked up, though in her case it was because she knew what that sound entailed. The wristwatch communicator was one half of a pair, operating on a unique frequency, with the other half belonging to her partner. It had to be Haruka.
Michiru got up from the table, hurrying out of sight into a secluded corner of the library before pressing a button on the watch and speaking into it. "Haruka! Did you manage to learn anything more from Ryouga?"
"Not exactly," came Haruka's dry response, and Michiru knew her lover's voice well enough to detect the note of pain in it. "We had someone else show up before Ami could get here. He knew about the hotel, even knew who Hotaru was. He'd taken her father hostage, and he used it to get to her. I... don't know where she is now. He took me out before I could transform."
A lump of ice settled in Michiru's chest, but she kept calm and didn't let her worry reach her voice. "I'll search for her using the Mirror," she said, praying that she was not already too late. If Hotaru's abductors were working for Tanizaki... if they had already brought her to a warded area, like the one Michiru had so recently failed to penetrate...
She pulled out her mirror and focused her will into it, along with thoughts of Hotaru. The image in the mirror's face wavered, and the Senshi of Neptune held her breath...
...and then the image resolved into that of Sailor Saturn, in her transformed state, walking with her father through the forest of all places, both of them following a little black piglet.
The breath of relief fairly burst out of Michiru. "She's all right!" the blue-haired girl reported. "She must have gotten free somehow."
"Really?" Haruka's voice was no less relieved. "Where is she?"
"I can't tell," replied Michiru. "All I can see from the image is that it's a forest. Our piglet friend seems to be leading her and her father somewhere." Michiru didn't know why Sailor Saturn would be following him like that, but presumably he was leading her someplace important.
"Either way, I'll keep checking on them," she continued. "If I see them arrive somewhere I can identify, I'll let you know. Where are you right now?"
"With Ami, going back to meet the other Inner Senshi," came Haruka's answer. "Even if Hotaru and her father did manage to escape in one piece, we need to figure out what to do now that we're being targeted like this."
His body a mass of shattered pain, Captain Davidson pried open his eyes and looked at the forest around him. He tried to climb back to his feet, but only succeed in rolling slowly to his hands and knees. He could tell that many of his ribs were broken, and the last thing that he could remember was an enormous piglet suddenly appearing and swatting him away before he'd had the chance to react.
Reaching with a trembling hand into a side pocket, Davidson pulled out an injector and drove it into his arm. Immediately the pain faded as the serum entered his bloodstream. His adrenaline spiked, filling him with a strength and fury he hadn't had moments ago. He lurched to his feet, breathing hard, his injuries already starting to heal at a vastly accelerated rate under the drug's effects. The broken bones wouldn't set right with this method, but that was the least of his worries right now.
He moved back in the direction he'd been sent flying from, first at a stagger, but soon at a run as his recovery progressed. Soon he reached the area where they had been interrogating the girl... and he slowed to a stunned halt as he saw the enormous, sterile crater that was now there. It was obvious that the angle at which the piglet had knocked him away—off to the side, instead of into the blast radius—had been the only thing that had saved his life.
For several moments he simply stood there, his mouth hanging open. Then he began to call out. "Abrams?" he shouted. Then, "Perez? Mitchell? Evans?"
By then he was screaming, his voice hoarse. Some part of him knew that he would get no response, not from any of them, but he kept trying and trying. Eventually he sunk to his knees, his head hanging low but his blood boiling. Then he threw back his head and howled, venting animalistic rage to the skies.
The little bitch and her pet had killed his men. His team. It was all gone, everything they had been through, all the hellish battlefields they had survived. He dug his fingers into the dirt at his side, the muscles in his arms straining as he howled again. Everything had fallen apart, and right now, in the grip of his drug-infused bloodlust, the only thing he wanted in all the world was to murder that damned girl in the most horrific way he could imagine. To hear her screams as she begged for mercy.
Eventually, Davidson's rage spent itself enough to allow some measure of coherent thought. He rose to his feet, walking around the edges of the crater, and soon found the trail his prey had made while leaving.
He had learned tracking long ago, in his early days as a soldier-for-hire, and while the course his prey had taken was a twisting, convoluted one, it was being made by a grown man with no experience in the woods and a girl wearing high heels in soft earth. There was no way he could miss such obvious markers.
They were not going to escape. He was going to hunt them down, and he would take bloody, painful revenge.
After sneaking out of the hospital, Ami and Haruka called Mamoru and asked him to meet them at Usagi's home, at which point they headed there themselves. Upon their arrival they found him already there, and he quickly finished the healing that Hotaru had begun. After that, they joined the rest of the Inner Senshi in Usagi's bedroom, and Haruka again related what had happened at the hotel.
By the time she had finished, a fearful mood had fallen over the listeners. Not only did the Dark Lords know their secret identities, but so did this mysterious new enemy. An enemy who, unlike the Dark Lords, showed no hesitation in targeting their loved ones to get at them. Images flashed through Ami's mind of gun-wielding soldiers attacking her mother, and she shuddered, her hands clenching tight in her lap.
"What do you guys think we should we do?" asked Minako, uncertainty in her voice. "How can we stop these guys?"
"Setsuna and Michiru are investigating right now," answered Haruka. "And as soon as we can contact Hotaru, we should be able to learn more about what's going on. For now, you should just focus on keeping the princess safe until we can regroup."
"No!" exclaimed Usagi. "Listen, everyone, if this is what those guys are doing then you can't all be guarding me like this anymore. What if they attack one of your homes instead? We need to make sure that everyone is protected!"
"But—!" Rei broke off, stricken, unable to complete the protest. It was obvious that she was deeply worried about her grandfather and Yuichiro. But at the same time, Sailor Moon and her family were the most likely target of another attack, and it cut into the shrine maiden's heart to not be there to help.
Mamoru put a hand on Rei's shoulder. "She won't be on her own," he assured the Senshi of Fire. "I'll be keeping watch over her." Unlike Ami or Rei, Mamoru was an orphan; Even if they weren't technically married yet, Usagi was the closest thing to family that he had.
"Don't forget about me, either," spoke up the other orphan in their number. Makoto crossed her arms defiantly. "If they want to get at anyone in this house, they're going to have to deal with me too."
"Thanks, Mako-chan," replied Usagi, smiling.
Haruka grimaced slightly, and Ami could tell that she would have preferred all of them to focus on guarding Usagi. But she didn't make an argument of it, only nodded. "All right, then I'm going to go and join back up with Michiru and Setsuna. With any luck, we'll be able to track down Hotaru and Ryouga before too long. And then maybe we can get some real answers."
The last few rays of sunlight were about to fade below the horizon when Ryouga finally led his two companions out of the forest and into view of civilization.
All in all, the lost piglet figured that he'd done pretty well. Granted, the town they had found probably wasn't the right town that Sailor Saturn had wanted to reach. Probably in the exact opposite direction, knowing him. But even so, reaching any kind of town at all this fast was pretty good by his standards. And now that they had a way of getting their bearings, the other two would probably take things from here.
"Well, it certainly isn't Tokyo," Professor Tomoe remarked, looking over the surroundings. "Look at how visible Mout Fuji is. You can't get a view like this so easily there."
Sailor Saturn nodded. "We'll need to find a way back," she said. "Maybe a train?"
Her father winced. "Those men took everything I had on me," he admitted. "Including my wallet. We'll need to get our hands on some money if we want to afford the fare, and it's growing late already."
On that sobering note, the three of them headed toward the city. As they approached, Sailor Saturn spoke up. "I should probably undo my transformation," she said. "Walking around the city as a Sailor Senshi will probably attract attention." She closed her eyes, preparing herself to dismiss the magic—
"Bwee!" Ryouga put his hoof urgently on Sailor Saturn's foot, causing her to open her eyes and look down at him in puzzlement. Ryouga met her gaze, then shook his head from side to side. "Bwee. Bwee, bwee bwee. Bwee!" Then he made a wide gesture to the area around them. "Bwee!"
The young girl hesitated, trying fruitlessly to figure out what he was trying to communicate... but in the end she decided to simply trust him. Ryouga breathed a sigh of relief. Because while he couldn't communicate it to the other two effectively, for the past few hours he'd become convinced that there was someone watching them.
Whoever it was, they were keeping their distance. But although he hadn't gotten a glimpse with his eyes, the lost piglet's danger sense could very clearly detect the furious killing intent that was focused on them. He did not want Hotaru to be in her vulnerable form while something like that was lurking around, even if it meant drawing all the strange looks in the world from anyone who saw them. Besides, it was getting late. Surely there wouldn't be that many people about...
Ryouga kept up his guard, staying alert for any threat as the three of them made their way through the town. But aside from the mysterious watcher, the further they went, though, the more Ryouga was struck by a nagging sense of... familiarity in their surroundings. That was never, ever reliable when it came to him, of course, but even so he couldn't quite shake it. Especially what Professor Tomoe had mentioned, about the visibility of Mout Fuji from here...
The piglet's eyes widened. No. No, surely his directional sense couldn't have brought him there. But then again, it had been quite a while since he'd last made it back...
His thoughts were interrupted by a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye, back in the direction they had come. He whirled around, ready for battle... just in time to see a half-black, half white dog come bounding around the corner, her nose to the ground as though tracking a scent. When she saw Ryouga her eyes lit up in an expression of pure joy, and she rushed over to him, barking happily.
"Bwee! Bwee bwee bwee!" exclaimed Ryouga in response to Shirokuro's greeting, scarcely able to believe his good fortune. He looked over to where Sailor Saturn and her father stood, watching the reunion with equally befuddled expressions. "Bwee! Bwee!" he told them eagerly, gesturing for them to follow as he climbed up on Shirokuro's back, and the dog set off for the Hibiki family home.
Finally, he thought as they went. Finally, things are starting to go our way.
Sailor Saturn had no idea what was going on, or why this strangely-colored dog had approached Ryouga so devotedly, but she followed the odd pair just the same. There had to be answers for all of this; she just needed to continue the search until she found them. Wherever this dog was taking them, might they have the ability to restore Ryouga to his normal form? Was this why he had guided them to this particular town?
The sun had completely gone down by the time they reached their destination. It was a modest two-story building, fenced off from the road, with a nameplate reading "Hibiki" on the outside. The dog pushed aside the small gate around the property and led them inside. The living room on the other side of the door felt surprising homey for a Dark Lord's secret base, though it did feel somehow quiet and empty.
Ryouga and the dog headed for the door to another room, only to have the piglet pause and bwee animatedly at them, motioning them to stay where they were, looking a bit embarrassed as he did so. Sailor Saturn was puzzled as to why he was so insistent that she not follow. Then she realized that turning back into a human was probably his first priority... and from what she'd seen, clothes weren't part of his transformation. She flushed a brilliant shade of red at the thought and nodded hurriedly, turning to study some photos hanging on one of the nearby walls with intense focus.
Eventually, she calmed down enough to actually take note of what the photographs displayed. One of the pictures was taken of Ryouga by the Tokyo Tower, while another showed him standing on what seemed to be the Great Wall of China, and a third was taken of him watching the sun rise over the sea at a small fishing village. In all of them, he was wearing a large backpack and worn, ragged travel clothes, and in all of them he was alone.
Except for one. The most prominently displayed photo had been taken in front of the Tendo home. There were several people in it who Sailor Saturn had never seen herself, though she could guess the identities of some of them from the descriptions of the other Sailor Senshi. Akane, Ranma, Ukyo, Shampoo, the youma who had sided with them, and a few others she couldn't place. They were all smiling into the camera, Ranma flashing a "V" sign with his fingers. Sailor Saturn realized that this photo was the only one where Ryouga was actually smiling as well.
She studied the images closer, wanting so badly to understand more about him. But her inspection was cut off by an unexpected sound. Someone was knocking on the front door.
Sailor Saturn and her father exchanged worried glances. Who could it be? What did they want here? Had the other Sailor Senshi located her? Or was it some friend of Ryouga's? And if so, would they be as amenable to peaceful discussion as he was?
Whoever it was, they soon knocked a second time. The young girl moved toward the door, step by step, calling the Silence Glaive to her hands in a flash of light and holding it at the ready. By the time she reached the door, the visitor knocked a third time, more urgently. Sailor Saturn didn't open the door, but she did raise her voice in a question. "...who is it?"
Davidson stood outside the door to the house he'd seen his prey enter, just barely holding his vengeful fury in check. He knocked for the third time on the door, knowing that if his simple ruse didn't work soon he would just charge straight in, and to hell with the consequences.
Then he heard a wary voice from inside, that of Sailor Saturn. "...who is it?"
The mercenary didn't respond, except by pulling out another injector and jamming it into his arm. His pupils dilated as strength and speed and rage flowed through him. Then he raised his assault rifle, aimed it through the closed door at the source of the voice, and pulled the trigger.
Sailor Saturn cried out in pain as the deafening burst of automatic fire caught her square in the forehead. Her head snapped back from the impacts and she stumbled away, bleeding and off balance. The remnants of the door exploded inward as the blond giant from before charged through. He was howling at her in English—frenzied words that she wouldn't have understood even if she hadn't been too disoriented to hear them.
His gun continued to fire non-stop as he closed the distance to her, armor-piercing bullets slamming into her center of mass and driving her backward, painful even in her Senshi transformation. He reached her with blinding speed and then spun, swinging the butt of his gun around to smash into the side of her head. The force of the blow lifted her off her feet and sent her flying across the room to crash through the wall to her left in a shower of wood and plaster.
The young girl rolled to her hands and knees, her vision spinning, her thoughts disjointed. Before she could get back to her feet, she felt him kick her in the stomach, sending her into the air again. The giant was on her before she could even hit the ground, grabbing her head with one hand and slamming her earthward, smashing the floorboards with the impact. With his other hand, the man pulled a combat knife out of his boot, raised it high, then swung it down at her throat.
Despite her injuries and disorientation, her hands shot out on desperate survival instinct, barely managing to grab hold of the man's wrist. She stopped the blade's decent with little more than an inch to spare, her arms straining, her body beaten and her leverage poor. The blond giant pressed down with ever-increasing force, still screaming at her in English. The blade descended, centimeter by centimeter, until she could feel its tip brushing against her skin, and she knew she had only moments left.
Then she heard a furious roar. An instant later, Ryouga—in his human form once more—crashed into the blond giant like a supersonic wrecking ball, sending him flying away. The Dark Lord skidded to a stop, ending his charge where he could stand between her and the danger.
Sailor Saturn pulled herself up into a sitting position, still unsteady from the bullets she'd taken to the head. She looked up at Ryouga's back, noticing to her slight embarrassment that he'd only had time to throw on a pair of pants, and nothing else. But this was no time to let herself get flustered. She doubted that hit had been enough to put their adversary down for good.
As if summoned by her thoughts, the blonde giant staggered back into view. Ryouga's attack had knocked him through the wall of the house, the wall surrounding the house, and out into the street beyond. Now he stood in the breach in the outer wall, teeth bared, glowering at them with a look of hatred so crazed and virulent that it seemed almost inhuman.
Ryouga cracked his neck back and forth. The young Senshi stood as well, the Silence Glaive returning to her hand in a flash of light. From what she'd seen of their opponent's ability, she was confident that—with the advantage from his sneak attack removed—either she or Ryouga could defeat him. With the two of them working together it would barely even be a fight. He'd even lost his grip on the knife when Ryouga had hit him, leaving him weaponless.
The blond man's bloodshot eyes shifted back and forth between his two opponents, and he seemed to come to a similar conclusion. But instead of running or surrendering, the giant pulled a handful of small white tubes. He jammed one into his right arm, then one into his left, and then another, and then another. By the fourth, his whole skin had flushed to a bloody, mottled red, his veins were bulging all across his body, and his eyes had lost any trace of sanity. He let out an incoherent scream and threw himself at them.
Ryouga lunged to intercept the man's charge, the two of them crashing together in a furious exchange of blows. She could see murder in the psychotic soldier's eyes, could see a feral need to kill that only grew with each passing moment, fueling his movements. But it was a double-edged sword. With the extra drugs he was much faster now than before... but it was uncontrolled speed, devoid of any strategy, technique or thought.
And that left openings. The Dark Lord managed to duck under a blindingly swift—but horribly telegraphed—swing, and impale the giant with an uppercut to the stomach that lifted the man off his feet. He then followed that with a punch into his opponent's face, then a spin kick to the same location that sent the giant stumbling away.
Ryouga didn't let up, not giving his off-balance opponent any chance to regain the initiative. He hit the reeling soldier with blow after blow after blow, raining them down with a speed and ferocity that was both terrifying and breathtaking. Sailor Saturn saw blood fly, heard bones shatter as Ryouga drove the man backward, tearing into her attacker like a tiger mauling its prey.
She remembered what she had speculated to Chibi-Usa, that Ryouga might have been trying to win without hurting her during their own duel. Watching him now, there was no longer the slightest shred of doubt in her mind. His fighting style was completely different from how he'd fought her, his body moving from one devastating attack to another with brutal, savage efficiency.
Soon, with a final punch, Ryouga drove her psychotic attacker into the street, his body carving a trench through the pavement until he came to a stop. The giant eventually lurched back to his feet... but it was clear that he was dying. It wasn't a question of the wounds he had taken from Ryouga; none of those were fatal, merely incapacitating. But as his condition worsened, it became increasingly obvious that he had doomed himself the moment he had used all those extra injections.
He was frothing at the mouth, his gaze unfocused, his brain already fried by whatever drugs he had taken. Nothing human remained in those eyes, only sick, empty hate. Spasms wracked him, as he tried mindlessly to close the distance to his opponent. Ryouga was no longer attacking, and only watched as the man slowly stumbled in his direction.
The blond man tottered toward his foe, step by step, until he had almost reached him. The man raised a trembling fist as he approached... but just before he got close enough to swing he lost his balance, tumbling forward to crumple to the ground. He let out one last ragged gasp, then shuddered and went limp, the last vestiges of life leaving his frame.
Ryouga looked down at him, then let out a long breath. He didn't immediately relax his guard, still standing protectively between her and the body of the man who'd tried to murder her. But once he was satisfied that it wasn't a trick, that the giant really was no more threat, he turned back to Sailor Saturn.
She returned his gaze, not knowing what to say. Her words caught in her throat as her heart pounded in her chest, conflicting emotions battling within her. Relief. Uncertainty. Gratitude. Nervousness. And other emotions that she did not want to name, for fear of what that would mean.
While she struggled to make sense of it all, he walked over to stand next to her. "Are you all right?" he asked with worry in his voice. He reached out with one hand, his fingers gently brushing aside her hair so that he could lean closer and look at the bullet wounds she'd taken to the forehead, which had bled down over her right eye. "You're hurt."
"I-i-it's not as bad as it looks," she stammered, looking down and hoping the dim light from the nearest streetlamp was enough to hide the blush she could feel on her face. She raised her own hand to the injured area as well, her fingers sliding underneath his. Then she called on her healing power, the mystical glow tinting everything nearby with pale purple light. She felt it wash over her as it slowly undid the damage she had taken. After a while the pain faded, and any residual dizziness vanished.
"Amazing..." Ryouga murmured. "I... didn't have the chance to say it back when you healed me the first time, but what you can do is... incredible."
"Thank you..." she replied, in a small voice. "And... and thank you for saving me from that man too. If you hadn't stopped him..."
Ryouga gave her a warm smile. "I'm just glad you're all right," he said. "And don't worry. I wouldn't let anything like that happen to you."
The young girl looked up at him, into his eyes. So much was still uncertain about him, about what he meant for her, about what he meant for her friends. But in that moment, one single thing, at least, she could no longer deny. She wanted with all her heart to return his feelings.
How it would end, she didn't know. She didn't know whether anything would come of it, or whether it would all fall apart. All she knew was that against all logic, reason or common sense, she had fallen in love with one of the Dark Lords of Nerima.
With a sigh, Ranma leaned back against the wall of the Tendo home's guest room. Overall, he felt good about how the day had gone, although as always, there had been no shortage of complications.
Ryouga's disappearance had been the most troubling. Not that Ranma seriously thought his rival had been killed or anything. No, he couldn't imagine the lost boy dying like that. Even in his cursed form, Ranma knew how slippery the little piglet could be. He had no doubt that the moron had escaped, and just gotten lost again. Still, that meant he would be gone for who knew how long, right when they had a chance to strike back at the bastard who had orchestrated their latest conflict with the Sailor Senshi.
Still, the news of what Beneda had discovered in the Dark Kingdom had surpassed even his wildest hopes. If this Urawa guy was telling the truth, then rescuing him and his monster friends would solve their Senshi problems in one fell swoop. If he could really prove that he hadn't actually had anything to do with the attack on Sailor Moon at the warehouse...
Konatsu had told them all about the esper youma's proposal, and everyone had readily agreed to help. The ninja was going to sneak back to the Dark Kingdom tomorrow to convey their agreement, and compare notes on whatever plan Beneda and the rest of them had come up with. Whatever they decided on, Ranma was looking forward to throwing the first of many wrenches into Kazuo's precious scheme.
But that was something for tomorrow; right now he needed to rest. No point in going into something like that tired. Accordingly, he laid his head down on his pillow and eventually drifted off to sleep.
Ekim exhaled a long, satisfied hiss of breath. He could sense through the thaumaturgic link of his nearly-completed spell that its target had just fallen asleep. Which meant that it was finally time for the finishing touches. Ekim's gaze focused on the blood-stained stone knife in front of him, and made a small gesture. The pentagram inscribed on the altar began to glow even brighter, and the stone knife lying on it floated up into the air, its tip hovering just above the altar's surface.
The sorcerer grasped the hilt with both hands as he intoned the final incantation. "By the power of the Nameless One, he who waits in the void beyond reality, the corrupter of light, the devourer of the innocent, I bind this mortal frame to my will!"
Red light burst from the altar, the world twisted around Ekim, and with a rush of vertigo the sorcerer found himself looking up at the ceiling of a small, darkened bedroom through the eyes of Saotome Ranma.
He slowly climbed to his feet, taking in his new surroundings while he acclimated himself to the body. The initial possession was always the riskiest part, especially with the chance of someone observing it in progress. But striking at night had been a good choice. Not only was the sleeping mind far easier to overcome, but the only "witness" was an older man, sound asleep on a floor mat nearby.
Everything was going according to plan.
Ekim pulled his consciousness back, releasing his grip on the dagger. This brought himself back to his chambers, while leaving Ranma's body standing there, its consciousness still suppressed by the spell. "It's done," Ekim announced, glancing back over his shoulder at Tanizaki. "Do you have a target for me?"
The businessman reached into the pile of dossiers scattered next to Ekim. Tanizaki had insisted that the sorcerer familiarize himself with all of them, details on the Sailor Senshi and their civilian identities, details on the martial artists in conflict with them, details on how the battles to date had gone. It included Zhang's report on the fight at the warehouse—and how that had turned out—as well as the transmission log from the Synths outlining the duel where Sailor Saturn had crippled Ryouga. Tanizaki picked up one dossier in particular and opened it, looking at the contents.
"She will be the target," he said. "If we are to keep tricking the Sailor Senshi into fighting against our martial artist friends, then two of the greatest threats to our deception will be the goodwill of Tsukino Usagi and the intelligence of Mizuno Ami. Our priority should be mitigating both."
"So which one do you want 'Ranma' to attack first?" asked Ekim.
"I would prefer not to target Sailor Moon directly," Tanizaki answered. "Her extreme power makes such an attempt unpredictable at best, and she has a guardian who seems to have a well-nigh precognitive ability to show up when she is in trouble. Not to mention the danger to your mind-control spell if she utilizes her purification magic. There are far too many ways it could go wrong."
"Sailor Mercury, then?"
"Indeed," said Tanizaki. "She has no rose-throwing protector, no purification abilities, and is easily the least powerful of the Sailor Senshi in terms of direct combat ability. A far more vulnerable target."
Ekim nodded in approval. "So. A vicious night ambush, ending with Sailor Mercury barely alive, left for dead by her careless attacker... proving to her and her comrades that Ranma is indeed after their blood."
"Exactly," Tanizaki agreed. "Also, make sure that the girl's mother does die during the course of your attack. There are few things better than murdered family to sow hatred and cloud judgment in situations like these... and we want Sailor Mercury's judgment, in particular, to be as clouded as possible."
"I will begin immediately," said Ekim, smiling. Normally he chafed under Tanizaki's orders, but for this excursion he was only too happy to obey. After all, the defenders of love and justice were enemies of his true master too, and the chance to inflict suffering on them personally was not to be missed.
Grasping the handle of the stone knife once again, the sorcerer returned his consciousness to the room he'd left Ranma standing in. He flexed his fingers, getting used to the new body, as he crept toward the door. Once there, he made his way downstairs and out into the night, leaping up to the rooftops as he raced toward Juuban.
Ami sat on her bed, unable to sleep, her knees drawn up to her chest in the darkness of her room as she tried to figure out a solution to the dangers facing them. Threats to her own safety were one thing, something she had long since accustomed herself to, but now with the discovery of their identities by the Dark Lords and the attack on Hotaru's family by the unknown kidnappers, the safety net that was supposed to protect those close to them had been violently ripped away. It was an entirely different kind of fear, one that chilled her to the bone.
Worse, the true nature of the threat wasn't even clear. How can we figure out what's going on, while still keeping everybody safe? she wondered. I need to come up with a plan, some way to turn things around for us.
A shrill beeping from beside her caused Ami to snatch up the Mercury computer and study the display. The unprecedented threat to their civilian identities had prompted her to take more precautions than usual; she had set the Mercury Computer to scan continuously along several different parameters—one of which had just been triggered. A life signature had just entered detection range, heading directly toward her house over the rooftops, one with far more life energy than any normal human.
And the precise biometrics of that life signature matched the readings she had taken of Ranma.
Ekim slowed Ranma's pace to a stop on the rooftop of a building adjacent to the high rise apartment complex that Tanizaki's information said was the home of his target. He smiled. He was enjoying the strength and youth and vitality of the martial artist's body, and couldn't wait to put it to use. But how best to make his attack?
The only constraints were that Sailor Mercury's mother needed to die, and the girl herself needed to "accidentally" survive to spread her story to the other Sailor Senshi. He supposed he could try to set it up so that the mother was caught in the crossfire during the fight, but that might prove tricky depending on how the woman reacted to his attack.
He spat to one side. And why bother being subtle about it? They were trying to make them hate Ranma after all. Why not go all the way? He imagined waking the young Senshi from her sleep by tossing her mother's head into her lap, and he smiled in anticipation of her horrified screams and sobs.
His course of action decided, Ekim deftly jumped across the gap between the buildings, landing on the balcony of the Mizuno apartment. There was an art to letting a possessed body's ingrained reflexes and muscle memory take over for physical tasks, and Ekim had mastered it. He moved over to the balcony door and forced it open, then crept into the darkened living room beyond. According to Tanizaki, the mother's room was right over...
Ekim whirled at the voice coming from behind him. A figure stepped out of a different doorway on the opposite side of the room, the figure of Sailor Mercury. Her arms were already crossed in front of her, a softly glowing ball of blue radiance forming there even as she called out to him. The sorcerer bit back a curse. Not only was she already awake—and transformed—but she'd actually managed to get the drop on him!
The blue-haired girl regarded him with a cold gaze. "What are you doing here?" she demanded, sharp suspicion in her voice. "If you really want us to ally with you against this 'new enemy' like Ryouga claimed you did, then sneaking into our homes at night is not the way to convince us."
It was clear that she was ready to release her charged attack at a moment's notice, and Ekim wasn't sure he'd be able to dodge at this range. Still, the girl was trying to talk to him before resorting to violence. That kind of attitude was problematic for Tanizaki's plan overall... but it gave Ekim a sudden inspiration on how he could turn it to his advantage. It was so simple! Not only could he turn the tables on Sailor Mercury and fulfill his objectives, but doing it this way would also make the knife twist so much deeper when it did happen.
Ranma had been trying to convince the Sailor Senshi of his good intentions? Ekim could use that.
He raised Ranma's arms palms-out in a gesture of surrender and innocence. Then he spoke, mimicking Ranma's speech patterns and inflections from his study of the boy during the "tour" of Tanizaki's skyscraper. "Yeah... I know this looks pretty bad, showing up here like this," he said. "I'm real sorry I had to do it this way, but... I needed to talk to you, and I needed to do it right away. We have to stop this fight between us, Sailor Mercury! We're all in danger if we don't."
The young Senshi frowned. She didn't drop her guard... yet. Her magic was still ready to fire if he made a wrong move. But Ekim was patient. If he could create an opening using words of peace—only to use that opening to make his attack—he was sute they would never again listen to those same words from Ranma.
"Please, you gotta believe me," he insisted with all the sincerity he could feign. "I swear I don't mean you any harm. If you just give me a chance, I'm sure we can talk things out!"
Sailor Mercury's expression softened, almost imperceptibly, and Ekim had to suppress a smirk. So very predicable. The easiest way to deceive someone was to tell them what they wanted to believe, and soft-hearted girls like her wanted to believe that their enemy could be reasoned with peacefully. This was going to be easy.
Not that she didn't still have suspicions. "All right, Ranma," she said, her magical attack still very much at the ready, its blueish glow casting flickering shadows around the room. "If you want to talk... then talk. What was so important that you had to sneak in here in the middle of the night to tell me?"
Ekim thought fast, borrowing from the truth and improvising on it. "I found out that this new enemy is gonna attack you girls again," he said. "They know who you really are, just like I do, and they could make their move any time! I had to try and warn you right away. That's also why I snuck in, because I didn't know if they had their guys here already."
"And you really want to help us fight them?" Sailor Mercury asked.
"It's the only way!" insisted Ekim. "If we keep on attacking each other, we'll just weaken ourselves, and make us easy pickings for that other enemy. Hell, Ryouga and Shampoo have already been taken out of commission 'cause of this stupid fight! We can't afford to let that happen to anyone else, not with the odds as bad as they are."
"...out of commission?" Sailor Mercury asked, puzzled. "Weren't they healed, though?"
Ekim cursed mentally. None of Tanizaki's information had said anything about those two being healed from their injuries. "Well... I mean... sure, they're better now," he said, as smoothly as he could. "But they still were out of commission for a while. It wasn't automatic, getting them back to full strength. And... I don't like seeing my friends hurt like that, no matter what."
That was the best tactic; distract from his slip by focusing her attention on his supposed concern for his allies. It seemed like something that would endear him to a sentimental opponent like her. He then went on the offensive. "Anyway... we don't have time for this. I came to you first, but our enemy's assassins could be attacking any of your friends! You gotta contact them too, and warn them about it!"
Of course, she couldn't contact the other Senshi while keeping her attack trained on him. This would force the issue, and it would do it in a way that made it a question of preventing harm to the other Senshi. Exactly the right sort of threat to turn the screws on someone like her.
What will you choose, Sailor Mercury? Ekim thought, delighted by how he'd trapped her. You won't be able to make me leave by mere words. If you try, I'll just stay here, insisting about the danger to you if I left. You'll have to either attack me for simply standing here—which I'm sure you won't do—or else eventually drop your guard. And that's when I'll strike, confirming Ranma beyond all doubt as a murderous backstabber.
The silence stretched on and on, until at last Sailor Mercury let out a long, quiet breath. "All right," she said, resignedly. "I... suppose what you say makes sense." It took all the self-control Ekim had not to let a vicious smile show on his face. He had won! She was about to let her attack disperse, and the instant she did he would leap across the room and break every bone in her body.
"I'll contact my friends and tell them what you said, so we can talk this out," she continued. "Certainly, if this new enemy is the one who injured Sailor Moon, then they're the greatest threat. Working together is the only logical choice." Then she frowned. "There's just one thing I don't understand. Why me?"
Ekim blinked. "What do you mean?"
"I mean... I don't understand why you would approach me first, rather than one of the others," she explained. "When we fought four years ago, in Nerima, you swore revenge against me particularly, since I was the one who actually broke your magic bowl. So why would you pick me as the first Sailor Senshi to talk to? Out of all the choices you had?"
"Oh, that's what you don't get?" Ekim said, scrambling to think up an answer. Victory was so close he could almost taste it, if he could just dispel these last doubts. "That's simple. You see... breaking that bowl was actually why I chose to approach you first. Because even though I was angry at the time... since then I came to respect you for how you managed to pull it off. It impressed me." He gave her a winning smile, trying to exude as much camaraderie as he could. "Now do you understand?"
"Yes..." said Sailor Mercury quietly. "Yes, I do..."
"Good!" Ekim said. "Then you ought to hurry and—"
"Shabon Spray Freezing!"
Ekim was caught completely off-guard as Sailor Mercury unleashed her attack in the middle of his sentence. Countless blue spheres shot out from her, filling the sorcerer's vision as they shot through the air toward him. His eyes barely even had the time to go bulge wide before several of them struck him low, freezing him to the floor in a large cone of magical ice that went up to his shoulders. "What the...? How...?" the sorcerer spluttered, taken aback by the utter reversal.
"There was something bothering me about you from the very beginning," Sailor Mercury informed him, her voice as cold as the ice binding him. "Your acting was good, but there was still something slightly... off... about you that I couldn't quite put my finger on. But it wasn't until you said what you did about Ryouga's injuries that I started to suspect what was really going on."
Ekim ground his teeth in fury, aghast at what had happened. He had used this possession spell dozens of times before, but he'd never faced someone perceptive enough to notice such subtle mistakes. True, he'd only had a brief time to study Ranma... but she had only met him a handful of times herself! "And that was enough for you to attack me?" he snarled.
"Just that? No. At that point it was just a suspicion." Sailor Mercury walked closer to him. "But it was enough for me to test you. You see, it was Sailor Moon who broke Ranma's bowl four years ago, not me. I wasn't even nearby when it happened. That's something the real Ranma would have known. You were here to frame him for an attack, weren't you? Just like you did at the warehouse. Ryouga was telling the truth about you trying to pit us against them."
Ekim cursed, straining with all his might at the magical ice, but it was unnaturally strong, and the cold felt as though it was sapping his strength. He could feel it cracking, just slightly, but it was slow and would take time. Time he wouldn't have, with the Senshi watching him so carefully.
"I am curious if that's Ranma's actual body you're controlling, or whether you're just a shapeshifter trying to pose as him," Sailor Mercury mused, as she pulled out a small computer and began tapping rapidly on its keyboard, still keeping a careful eye on him. "I've had experience with both kinds of magic. My basic scan didn't detect anything out of the ordinary while you were approaching, so whatever you're using, you've concealed it very well. Perhaps a more tailored analysis..."
But whatever else she might have said was cut off by the sound of a door opening, followed by that of footsteps coming into the room. "What's going on in here?" came the sleep-fogged voice of Sailor Mercury's mother, as she entered the room. "Ami? I heard someone shouting, is that—?" She broke off, her eyes widening as she took in the scene before her eyes. "Are... are you a Sailor Senshi? What's going on here? Where's Ami?"
Ekim laughed. He'd needed something to turn the tables, and a distraction like this was all he could have asked for. "What, you don't recognize her?" he asked, his tone mocking. His words prompting Sailor Mercury to whirl back to him, her eyes going wide at what she could tell he was about to do. "Don't tell me she's been doing this for all these years, and you never even suspected? Don't tell me a little bit of disguise magic is stronger than a mother's bond with her own daughter?"
The elder Mizuno turned slowly to look at Sailor Mercury, an expression of disbelief on her face. "What... What is he saying?" she breathed. "What are you doing here in the middle of the night? You aren't... You aren't really...?"
The young Senshi flinched guiltily, not quite meeting her mother's gaze. The older woman covered the distance between them, until she stood right next to the girl. "Look at me!" she demanded. "Ami, look at me!"
But while Sailor Mercury's attention was transfixed by the sudden revelation of her secret identity to her parent, Ekim made his move. He'd managed to weaken the ice, bit by bit, and now with an enormous, all-out push of Ranma's strength, he burst free, shattering ice everywhere. He grabbed one particularly large chunk as it tumbled through the air and hurled it straight at Sailor Mercury, catching her in her chest and lifting her off her feet. Her mother screamed, but Ekim pushed past her, intent on taking down Sailor Mercury before she could recover. He charged after her, fist raised high—
—until the glass door to the small balcony shattered, as the green-suited figure of Sailor Jupiter crashed through it, an enormous surge of lighting crackling around her fist. "Supreme..." she shouted, as she landed and launched herself toward Ekim, who scrambled to try and halt his headlong charge. She swung at him, and he reflexively threw his arms up to block the punch, but that did nothing against the electrical discharge she unleashed point-blank as her strike hit. "...Thunder!"
Ekim screamed as Ranma's body was wracked by the intense current. He stumbled backward, arms flailing and spasming, clothes smoking, trying to get some distance... even as Sailor Moon alighted on the balcony herself, panting for breath. The sorcerer's mind whirled. How had they known to come here? How had they gotten here so quickly?
Then—too late—he remembered what Sailor Mercury had said, that her scans had detected him before he had even reached the apartment. She must have contacted her allies then and told them what was happening. Now there were at least three Sailor Senshi facing him, and he was already debilitated. There was no way he could do anything against these kind of odds.
Sailor Jupiter was about to nail him with a follow-up attack, but she was interrupted. "Don't kill him!" shouted Sailor Mercury from where she had fallen, as she pulled herself back to her feet. "I think he may be possessed. Sailor Moon, try to cure him!"
Ekim's blood ran cold. If he let them return Ranma to normal here, it would be the worst possible situation. Gathering all Ranma's remaining strength, he lunged for the door to the apartment, desperate to flee, even as he heard Sailor Moon's voice ring out behind him. "Silver Moon Crystal Power..."
He hit the door at full tilt, throwing himself sideways around the corner of the hallway and out of direct line of sight. He landed in a roll, as behind him, he heard Sailor Moon shouting "...Kiss!"
Then blinding light exploded from the door. He avoided the direct blast... but even the slightest passing graze of ambient spillover from the curing magic was almost too much. He could feel cracks growing in the fabric of his spell, could feel its structure warp and weaken. But he threw all his willpower into maintaining it, and managed to hold onto control.
Once the light had faded, Ekim wasted no time. Whatever he did from here on out, whatever use he put his puppet to now, he knew it was hopeless to try and continue this particular fight. So he turned and fled, determined to get away before the Sailor Senshi could mount an effective pursuit.
He wasn't sure yet where he was going to send this body. He wasn't sure what he was going to do with it next. There was only one thing that Ekim knew for certain, as he ran for all Ranma was worth, escaping out into the night.
Tanizaki was going to be furious.